It's altogether typical of Erick Hawkins that in a series of dance recitals labeled a "retrospective," one of the chief entries should be a world premiere. Indeed, last night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, in the second of three programs by the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, the centerpiece was the auspicious first performance of "God the Reveller," with a commissioned score by Alan Hovhaness and costumes and de'cor by Ralph Dorazio.

It's most fitting that Hawkins should pause for a backward glance at this juncture in his choreographic career, which began with a work called "Show Piece" exactly 50 years ago. The triptych of programs at the Terrace will survey a total of 10 works, ranging from the 1941 "Trickster Coyote" to last night's premiere. Moreover, a substantial grant from Volvo has helped make possible not just the production of "God the Reveller," but also a projected videotaping of much of the retrospective. Though Hawkins' contribution to American dance has been both historic and vital, scarcely any of his work has been recorded in this form. Hence the videotaping will be a major step in the right direction.

But pausing for backward glances is not what Hawkins is about. And however wholeheartedly his artistic outlook has embraced past civilizations and ideals, his gaze has always been forward, to the next new work. In a way, too, this is the theme of his latest opus. If there is an underlying motif to "God the Reveller," it is the proposition that life can and must renew itself -- indeed, resurrect itself -- through creativity.

The new work is on Hawkins' largest visionary scale. Though there's no role for Hawkins, all 10 regular members of his troupe are participants (along with one apprentice, Sean Russo), many in multiple roles. As so often in the past, Dorazio's brilliant designs are integral to Hawkins' concept, testifying to a remarkably durable affinity between a visual artist and a choreographer. And the Hovhaness score, marked by astringently modal tunes and elemental rhythmic pulsations, is a perfect sonic complement.

As the piece opens, we see a triad of stylized Greek columns, evoking at once the world of classical antiquity from which Hawkins drew his inspiration. At center stage stands one of the three principal characters, Eros (Michael Moses), clad only in a loincloth and a shoulder harness to which are attached large wings fashioned from what appears to be balsa wood. His feet are planted within an ellipse of shards representing "the World Egg."

Three pairs of Lovers, garbed in diaphanous pleated shifts, join Eros in a swoopy interlude. A school of frisky Dolphins -- dancers bearing fishlike props -- undulates across the stage from one side as, from the other, the second principal, Dionysos (Mark Wisniewski), is borne along in a mock sailboat. Dionysos, in a burgundy toga with a black sash, holds a lyre and dances a solo amid a chorus of acolytes. With the help of Dorazio's ever imaginative headdresses, the reveling deity next disports himself in the guises of a Bull, a Snake and a mane-shaking Lion.

With the entrance of the third principal, the black-robed figure of Death (Moses, in a second role), the work nears its dramatic climax -- a mortal tussle between Dionysos and Death in the form of a slow motion wrestling match. Dionysos succumbs, and lies at rest between the knees of Sleep (Russo). Three fearsomely masked Titans hover over him and perform a stylized dismemberment, gulping down his entrails (red, liver-like props). A quartet of female mourners, poignantly led by Gloria McLean, bemoans his passing, flailing their long strands of hair, like frozen tears, over his prostrate body.

But then, in the work's penultimate section, titled "Reversal From Grief to Joy," Eros returns, to plant a reviving kiss on Dionysos' lips. The god reawakens and leads the ensemble in a jubilant, quasi-orgiastic dance of rejuvenation. At the end, the celebrants sprawl exhaustedly on the ground; alone, standing, are Eros and Dionysos, lyre lifted on high. The message is clear. It is only with the aid of Eros, the generative principle of life, creativity in its broadest connotations, that victory over Death -- the death of the spirit, of hope, of imagination -- can be attained.

The other members of the sterling cast were Cynthia Reynolds, Laura Pettibone, Katherine Duke, Mariko Tanabe, Randy Howard, Daniel Tai and James Reedy. In this performance as in all others of the series, conductor Glen Cortese led the excellent eight-man Hawkins Theatre Orchestra in a vivid rendering of the music.

The program began and ended with a splendid pair of plotless, formal dances -- "Summer-Clouds People" (1983) and "Heyoka" (1981) -- bearing further witness to the range of Hawkins' idiom, and the wonderfully centered rapport of his dancers.