It would be hard to imagine a more felicitous start for this year's Dance America series than the one the Erick Hawkins Dance Company brought us last night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

The spirit of exploratory individualism that has motivated American modern dance from its start has seldom found as bold an incarnation as that revealed to us in Hawkins' choreography. Yet the seeming simplicity and austerity of his style -- actually a hard-won economy of means and statement -- has ruled out an easy popularity for his work. Hawkins' wonderfully spare dances demand a lot of concentrated seeing and a sympathetic viewpoint for their appreciation. It was gratifying to note the very enthusiastic reception for last night's program from the capacity crowd, a signal that the public is catching up with this indefatigable visionary now that he's entering the sixth decade of his career.

Each of the four works, three of them new to Washington, showed us a different facet of Hawkins' imagination. "Summer-Clouds People" was the most purely abstract of the lot, yet from the moment the curtain rose, disclosing the startling, translucent forms of Ralph Dorazio's set suspended in midair over Cathy Ward's huddled figure on stage, the image of a desert skyscape seemed implicit. In the first section, the ensemble of four men and four women in blue-gray leotards hops, bends and undulates to the pungently abrasive sounds of Michio Mamiya's score, as crisply set forth by the seven-member Hawkins Theatre Orchestra led by Glenn Cortese. In the next section, to a maundering flute solo, the dancers reenter in capacious cloth mantles of black, gray and bright orange hues. Lighter colors reappear as the musical texture again thickens, and the last section is marked by a beautifully sculpted solo for Ward. The piece closes on a note of restored tranquility.

What a contrast with "The Joshua Tree, or, Three Outlaws," the most recent Hawkins opus (1984) of the evening, with humorously square-jawed music by Ross Lee Finney and marvelously stylized, cartoonish props and costumes by Ray Sais. This western morality yarn of avarice and treachery is very reminiscent of John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," but the witty treatment is pure Hawkins in its telescoped dance narrative and choppily truncated spoken text. Hawkins demonstrates the potency of his stage presence in his symbolic, tripartite role; Daniel Tai is bluntly amusing as the Saloonkeeper, and Mark Wisniewski, Randy Howard and James Reedy are aptly roughneck as the bandits.

Next came "Trickster Coyote," a wryly astringent early solo of Hawkins' to which he added two couples in 1983. Henry Cowell's score, with a sting like chili in its raw sounds, makes flinty use of kazoos, a bullroarer and, in the ensemble's hands, four rattles. James Harker's masks and costuming brilliantly evoke the moodily moping coyote (Randy Howard) and the tribesmen who tease him. The charmingly effervescent finale was "Hurrah!," seen here some years ago in a performance with the National Symphony. It's an affectionate portrait of an idealized July Fourth in a midwestern park circa 1900, enlivened by Virgil Thomson's rah-rah score and Dorazio and Nancy Cope's colorful set and costumes.

What the four works had in common was Hawkins' wise innocence, combining the unquestioning wonder of childhood with the knowing eye of maturity. The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.