At 76, Erick Hawkins is a walking -- and dancing -- advertisement for the hardiness of the creative life.

This year he celebrates his 50th anniversary as a dancer. He also remains outspoken in defense of his choreographic ideas, even though he's always been too much of a loner and an eccentric to gain full acceptance within the mainstream of modern dance. As a youngster, Hawkins passed through and eventually rebelled against the two most prominent, rigorous codes of dance art of this century: the neoclassical ballet of George Balanchine, and the aggressive modernism of Martha Graham. Having profited from both associations, he struck out on a novel path, founded a company of his own, and has stuck tenaciously and optimistically to his guns ever since.

The Erick Hawkins Dance Company returns to the Kennedy Center tonight after an absence of four years, opening the Dance America series in the Terrace Theater with a three-night run. The program spans more than four decades of Hawkins' creativity: "Summer-Clouds People," a 1983 abstraction to a score by Michio Mamiya; the revival of a 1941 solo, "Trickster Coyote," to which an ensemble of four has been added; last year's "The Joshua Tree," with decor by Hawkins' longtime collaborator Ralph Dorazio; and "Hurrah," a frankly patriotic festivity from 1975 set to music by Virgil Thomson.

Hawkins himself performs in "The Joshua Tree," appearing in three guises -- as an undertaker, a blind Mexican peasant and a death figure. He's the personification of Fate, who leads three bad guys searching for gold to their comeuppance. The piece is set in a western saloon.

"It's a fable about greed," Hawkins says, then thunderously quotes "radix omnium malorum est cupiditas -- greed is the root of all evil!" It's a New Testament saying, but the Latin is probably a relic of Hawkins' days at Harvard, where he was a classics student.

Hawkins' fight to keep his company going and continue making new work hasn't gotten any easier over the years. "You know," he says philosophically, "I thought that after I'd worked so hard all my life, things would be hunky dory, but it's just as hard as ever." It's a rare dancer his age, though, who would have as few outward scars to show for it. Hawkins has always insisted that the technique he developed -- which calls for effort but not harmful stress and emphasizes smoothness of flow -- is based on principles in harmony with nature and the human constitution.

"I can't do the jumps I use to," he says, "and frankly, I don't care. I've had my fun. But I don't have any serious injuries." Hawkins says that when he visits Dr. William Hamilton, the New York orthopedist who recently operated on Mikhail Baryshnikov, the physician is amazed at his condition. "There's nothing wrong with my knees," he boasts. "I'm the living proof of my own technique."

Hawkins was born in rural Colorado, where he acquired the deep interest in American Indian culture that is reflected in so many of his works. His desire to dance was spurred by seeing the German duo Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi in a New York recital while he was at Harvard. And it was at Harvard that classmate Lincoln Kirstein enlisted Hawkins in his newly founded School of American Ballet, led by Balanchine. Hawkins also danced with Kirstein's Ballet Caravan troupe, and did his first choreographic work, the ballet "Show Piece," to music commissioned from Robert McBride, for that company.

After a performance of "Show Piece" at Bennington College, where Ballet Caravan was in residence the summer of 1937, Martha Graham came backstage to compliment Hawkins. It was the start of a historic relationship. Kirstein lent Hawkins the money for his first classes with Graham. She took him into her company as her first male dancer; he became her leading partner, and for a couple of years, her first and only husband. He originated a number of roles in Graham masterpieces, including "Appalachian Spring" and "Night Journey."

By 1951, however, Hawkins had embarked on his own choreographic course, establishing a company and beginning a lifelong collaborative friendship with composer Lucia Dlugoszewski, who shared his commitment to new music performed live as integral to the dance experience. Today, Hawkins still values his past with Balanchine and Graham, but he also feels strongly about points of esthetic divergence from them.

"After four years with Balanchine, nobody appreciated him more than I did," Hawkins says. "He was truly a genius -- even as a pipsqueak, I could see that." But classical ballet is another story. "I don't believe in the toe shoe. To me, it's the real essence of modern dance to find the beauty of the dancers' movements according to nature, not against it. The toe shoe represents dear old St. Petersburg -- it's a 19th-century idea of woman and of man's relation to women. What's it got to do with today's America?"

Hawkins feels no closer to Graham's ideas or methodology. "The lesson I learned from Martha," he says, "is courage -- the courage to be yourself and remain yourself. Look at her, she's still going. Not that I like that storm and stress of hers. The qualities I treasure in dance are loveliness and equanimity. I don't hold, either, with the kind of art that likes to show 'life as it is.' It's one of the main ways I disagree with so much modern art -- they think they have to show the ugliness of the world. You know it's there, but that doesn't mean you have to wallow in it."

Last December, on invitation from the Japan Foundation, Hawkins made his first trip to the Far East, surprising for someone whose own creations seem so often to resonate with Eastern sensibilities. "I saw four Noh plays in performance. It was so very intense. That's what moves me the most -- a highly poetic physicality." It's as good a thumbnail description of the character of Hawkins' own dance works as one could devise.