It was gratifying to see the unbuttoned, vociferous response to the Erick Hawkins Dance Company at the Terrace Theater Friday night, as the Dance America series picked up steam with a sold-out house. As one of several major figures of the post-Graham generation who remain steadily under-appreciated, Hawkins today, at 72, is as controversial as he has been for the past three decades, and he tends to spawn vehement partisans in both directions. It's easy to see why. His thought, his style, his work have never entered the mainstream -- Hawkins has gone off on a tributary all his own, and his idiosyncratic mode demands a special openness and sympathy. Those willing to tune in to the Hawkins wavelength, however, have had revealed to them a domain of bold, spare, elemental beauty, impervious to fashion and deeply concerned with man's place in a world of nature.

"Heyoka," which received its Washington premiere Friday, traces its thematic source -- like the program's two earlier works -- to the visions and creeds of American Indians. The title comes from the Sioux word for clowns, who preface tribal dancing with a slapstick aperitif. So too, Hawkins' opus begins, in silence as two men in cartoon masks, striped bodysuits and leg rattlers enter with pratfalls and carry on with droll flapping and paper-tearing sight gags. What follows, however -- to Ross Lee Finney's commissioned music -- is a totally abstract dance, serious but not solemn, wonderfully expressive in its sheer harmony of design.

Once the clowns have exited, the change in mood and intensity is instantaneous. A man steps onto a flat, oval pedestal upstage, pausing in balance to accent the new departure. He does some loping turns and is soon joined by a woman, and then others of the ensemble of eight, who glide in and out of unison, swaying, folding, darting. A few images recur, like moments of extra focus -- two groups of three with arms linked and wrists describing ornate curlicues, a linear phalanx advancing gravely toward the viewer. The end, too, is performed in silence, as one man makes an emphatic jump and the others abruptly about-face to stare fixedly outward.

It's hard to analyze what precisely accounts for the riveting effect of a Hawkins work like "Heyoka." Hawkins' gradations of rhythm and dynamics are subtle rather than blatant, but he has the gift of clearsightedness -- an immaculate whole condenses from the measured concordance of each detail, like a mosaic which appears illegible at close quarters but a sharply defined figure at sufficient distance. And the integration extends forcefully to scenic and musical components as well, as in "Heyoka," in which Ralph Dorazio's austere, striking sculpture and Finney's handsomely etched soundscape appear inseparable from Hawkins' choreographic discourse.

The dancers, impeccable masters of the Hawkins idiom, were eloquent not only in "Heyoka," but also in "Agathlon" and "Plains Daybreak," the pair of powerfully impressive works from 1979.