Inevitably, last night's program entitled "An Evening of Choreography by Pola Nirenska," presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Marvin Theater, had a stirring sense of occasion about it. Nirenska is not only one of the grand matriarchs of modern dance in Washington, where she's resided since 1951, but also still one of its most potently creative figures. At 72, she's launched into her fourth or fifth career, not only reviving works more than a decade old, but making splendid new ones.

Filling the house for last night's homage, along with a sizable number of lay admirers, was virtually the entire Washington modern dance enclave, young and old, except those who were on stage as participants. The performing forces included the Glen Echo Dance Theater, the Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria (CODA), and guest soloists Liz Lerman, Rima Wolff and Colette Yglesias--not only area notables, but also younger dancers who reached across the generation gap to assist Nirenska out of "retirement" a few years ago. All had their reward last night in an evening that radiated Nirenska's leading artistic qualities--conceptual vigor and definition, structural clarity and strength, and a warm, compassionate, urgent emotionality.

On the surface, Nirenska seems a throwback to a much earlier period of modern dance, and indeed, her work reflects--in its techniques, its thematic concerns and its expressive intensities--her maturation at the hands of the great pioneering masters of the art, including Wigman, Holm, Humphrey, Weidman and Jooss. Yet Nirenska's work seems less like an anachronism than an ennobling reincarnation of the spirit of another time, a time in which dance could embrace without embarrassment such humanistic contents as idealism, tragedy and social consciousness. The power of her conviction, moreover, transfigures those she works with--Washington has rarely seen indigenous modern dance performances of such concentration, rigor and eloquence as those on display in last night's concert, particularly from Lerman, Wolff, Yglesias, Susan Hannen and Betsy Eagan.

Nirenska's newest pieces deserve more extended commentary than is possible here; suffice it for now to note that they are compelling in both design and substance. "Longing," to music Debussy, and "Wounded," to Ginastera, are compact portraits of feeling states, beautifully rendered by Hannen and Eagan, respectively. The three solos--one old and two new--which constitute "Exits," with music by Evelyn Loehofer de Boeck, take their stark core from Dylan Thomas quotations and deal with approaches to death; Lerman's superb account gave them a haunting pathos. A gentler sorrow was the ultimate burden of the two-part ensemble piece, "Whatever Begins Also Ends," to an Ernest Bloch score, filled with moving imagery of attachment, loss, commiseration and solace--the work is inscribed to the "memory of those I loved who are no more."