The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that singer Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, stage and movie director Elia Kazan and composer and critic Virgil Thomson will receive the sixth Kennedy Center Honors. The annual awards, to be presented in December, honor five Americans for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

"Of course I'm looking forward to it!" Thomson said yesterday. "You look forward to anything that's on your calendar."

But maybe to some things more than others, like the day when you go to the State Department and pick up the medal that has been given to such colleagues as Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin and Aaron Copland.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomson, 86, studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. While there, he was a close friend of Gide, Picasso, Cocteau, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein. Gertrude Stein and Thomson collaborated on the operas "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All." Music critic for The New York Herald Tribune in the '40s and '50s, Thomson has written eight books. The latest, "A Virgil Thomson Reader," a selection from his writings on music, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1982.

Kazan, through a spokesman, said he was "very delighted and flattered, and looking forward to the weekend very much. I am especially glad that the federal government in the United States is recognizing achievement in the arts, as they do in England when they present an artist with the title 'Sir.' "

Kazan, 73, directed the original stage productions of "Death of a Salesman," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; the films "East of Eden" and "On the Waterfront"; and the screen version of "Streetcar." A cofounder of the Actor's Studio in New York, Kazan helped popularize the "method" school of acting, which influenced Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean and thousands of others.

"I was asked to be on the nominating committee for the awards," said the 71-year-old Dunham in a phone interview yesterday, "and then all of a sudden it got to be I was an honoree." Dunham founded the Ballet Negre, which later developed into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and choreographed such famous shows and films as "The Emperor Jones," "Cabin in the Sky" and "Stormy Weather." Her early studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago and in the West Indies strongly influenced her theatrical work, and she is considered a pioneer for her use of African and Caribbean idioms in dance.

Sinatra, 67, has recorded more than 1,300 songs and earned more than 20 gold albums. He appeared in more than 50 films, including "Pal Joey," "High Society," "Guys and Dolls" and "From Here to Eternity," for which he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor. In the past few years he has been visible in Washington because of his close friendship with the Reagans and the help he has provided in arranging entertainment at special White House events. He was out of the country yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Stewart, 75, was cited as a "meticulous and versatile actor." He has made more than 80 films, and won the Academy Award for best actor for his role in the 1940 classic "The Philadelphia Story."

"I think it's a very special honor because it isn't for one specific thing like the Academy Award or the Emmy, because it includes all the performing arts," Stewart said. "For me, after being around in the business for over 50 years, it's a combination of appreciation and being honored and really a feeling that you've been very fortunate."

The honorees will receive their medals at a State Department dinner Dec. 3. The following night President Reagan will hold a White House tribute to the five, and then the honorees will attend a show and supper dance at the Kennedy Center. CBS will tape the gala for KENNEDY CENTER MAKES ITS PICKS SINATRA, STEWART, DUNHAM, KAZAN, THOMSON HONORED By Elizabeth Kastor

The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that singer Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, stage and movie director Elia Kazan and composer and critic Virgil Thomson will receive the sixth Kennedy Center Honors. The annual awards, to be presented in December, honor five Americans for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

"Of course I'm looking forward to it!" Thomson said yesterday. "You look forward to anything that's on your calendar."

But maybe to some things more than others, like the day when you go to the State Department and pick up the medal that has been given to such colleagues as Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin and Aaron Copland.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomson, 86, studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. While there, he was a close friend of Gide, Picasso, Cocteau, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein. Gertrude Stein and Thomson collaborated on the operas "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All." Music critic for The New York Herald Tribune in the '40s and '50s, Thomson has written eight books. The latest, "A Virgil Thomson Reader," a selection from his writings on music, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1982.

Kazan, through a spokesman, said he was "very delighted and flattered, and looking forward to the weekend very much. I am especially glad that the federal government in the United States is recognizing achievement in the arts, as they do in England when they present an artist with the title 'Sir.' "

Kazan, 73, directed the original stage productions of "Death of a Salesman," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; the films "East of Eden" and "On the Waterfront"; and the screen version of "Streetcar." A cofounder of the Actor's Studio in New York, Kazan helped popularize the "method" school of acting, which influenced Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean and thousands of others.

"I was asked to be on the nominating committee for the awards," said the 71-year-old Dunham in a phone interview yesterday, "and then all of a sudden it got to be I was an honoree." Dunham founded the Ballet Negre, which later developed into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and choreographed such famous shows and films as "The Emperor Jones," "Cabin in the Sky" and "Stormy Weather." Her early studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago and in the West Indies strongly influenced her theatrical work, and she is considered a pioneer for her use of African and Caribbean idioms in dance.

Sinatra, 67, has recorded more than 1,300 songs and earned more than 20 gold albums. He appeared in more than 50 films, including "Pal Joey," "High Society," "Guys and Dolls" and "From Here to Eternity," for which he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor. In the past few years he has been visible in Washington because of his close friendship with the Reagans and the help he has provided in arranging entertainment at special White House events. He was out of the country yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Stewart, 75, was cited as a "meticulous and versatile actor." He has made more than 80 films, and won the Academy Award for best actor for his role in the 1940 classic "The Philadelphia Story."

"I think it's a very special honor because it isn't for one specific thing like the Academy Award or the Emmy, because it includes all the performing arts," Stewart said. "For me, after being around in the business for over 50 years, it's a combination of appreciation and being honored and really a feeling that you've been very fortunate."

The honorees will receive their medals at a State Department dinner Dec. 3. The following night President Reagan will hold a White House tribute to the five, and then the honorees will attend a show and supper dance at the Kennedy Center. CBS will tape the gala for broadcast later in December.

Last year's gala raised nearly $400,000 for the performing arts program of the Kennedy Center. The honorees were George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly and Eugene Ormandy. The show's guests included host Walter Cronkite, Claudette Colbert, Lionel Hampton, Van Johnson, Yves Montand, Andre Previn, Harold Prince and Isaac Stern. In the five years since the first awards were given to Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein, the galas have raised nearly $2 million.