Part of the fascination of the dance works of Erick Hawkins is their utter strangeness. Especially in an era when most of Western dance has come to be identified with ostentatious feats of virtuosity, nonstop transports of youthful energy, and the storm and stress of personal angst or erotica, the stillness and placid symbology of Hawkins' work can strike one as bizarre.

It is bizarre. It is weird in the 1980s to find a creator of dance for whom movement is a form of contemplation, of mystical union with universal verities.

But that's precisely what makes Hawkins' choreography ultimately so compelling. As forcefully as anyone, Hawkins, at age 78, exemplifies the generating principle of American modern dance -- the embodiment through movement of a powerfully individual vision of the world.

All this was brought home with special impact last night at the Terrace Theater, where the Erick Hawkins Dance Company launched a series of three retrospective programs, at the same time marking the start of this season's "Dance America" series under the joint auspices of the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society. This first program contained two Washington premieres -- "Today, With Dragon," and "Ahab," both created last year -- and a masterwork from 1979, "Plains Daybreak."

I say special impact in reference to somewhat special circumstances. Hawkins' dances -- though we've been watching them, intermittently, across a period of decades -- remain strange and challenging for audiences under any conditions. I remember my own slow conversion to Hawkins' style, hard won past an initial period of bewilderment and even anger. Could anyone seriously regard this nothingness as dance, I thought, resentful and perturbed? But if Hawkins gets to you, finally, he burrows deep under the skin. The more you watch, the more the nothingness resolves into a subtle play of extraordinary qualities, a tapestry of images, sounds, colors, and movement that's profoundly haunting.

The point here, though, is that it's hard enough to see what Hawkins is up to in the most conducive of situations. Last night, however, began with an unannounced program switch, so that people thought they were watching "Plains Daybreak" when they were actually seeing "Today, With Dragon." When, after the first intermission, a brief offstage voice tried to set the record straight, it was in a manner so terse and incomplete as to compound the confusion.

Still, the enthusiastic reception by the opening night crowd suggested that the beauty of Hawkins' creations won out over the adversity. To make matters even more trying, moreover, "Today, With Dragon" was by far the most difficult of the evening's offerings. True, Ralph Dorazio's stylized oriental dragon, the exotic timbres of Ge Gan-Ru's chamber score and the dancers' jaunty marching, stamping and jumping summed up to a sort of jovial, totemistic ceremony. Nevertheless, as the least representational of the evening's dances and the slenderest in content, it was the hardest nut to crack.

Almost as refractory but far more memorable was "Ahab," Hawkins' rarefied version of "Moby Dick," with Hawkins himself in the title role, the other four men of his troupe (Daniel Tai, James Reedy, Michael Moses and Randy Howard) as the crew of the Pequod, and an actor, Joseph Lutton, as the narrator Ishmael. Hawkins selected short, pithy morsels of Melville's prose, most of it declaimed by Ishmael. Ross Lee Finney's music provides a sparse, fittingly flinty sonic backdrop with sharply dramatic jolts at appropriate moments.

Hawkins' longtime collaborators Ralph Dorazio and Ralph Lee furnish props and masks that, like Hawkins' choreography, piercingly evoke the crusty, bardic tone of the book without actually rendering an explicit narrative. Ahab's ivory peg leg becomes a white stocking and shoe; his whitened face and heavy, lunging stride bespeak the torment of his vengeful quest. A few harpoons and lengths of rope, the suggestion of a mast and a coffin are all the mind's eye needs to conjure the whole epic ambiance that Hawkins envisions. Hawkins isn't trying to reproduce the novel in dance form -- this isn't "Moby Dick, the Ballet." What he's after, characteristically, is the mythic crux -- Ahab as one of the quintessential personifications of American imagination -- and in this he succeeds brilliantly.

"Plains Daybreak" remains one of Hawkins' most durable and sublime achievements, much abetted by Ralph Lee's riveting masks, costumes and props and a folklike score by Alan Hovhaness that perfectly suits this charming simulacrum of an aboriginal creation myth. Howard was superb in the Hawkins' role as First Man; the other exemplars of the animal kingdom were tellingly portrayed by the three men cited above and by Mark Wisniewski, Laura Pettibone, Cynthia Reynolds, Gloria McLean and Mariko Tanabe.