Extraordinary! It's the only word that can do justice to the program at Ford's Theatre by the American Indian Dance Theatre, which last night officially launched an engagement that will extend through Nov. 22.

The presentation is extraordinary in many ways, but first of all in the basic etymological sense -- it's something above and beyond the ordinary. This is dance of an elemental beauty and power that transcend the stage; dance that's not so much an entertainment or even an art, though it partakes of both, as a communing with vital forces of nature; dance as the living expression of a people who have retained close, primal links with earth, sky and spirit.

In some ways it's too bad that the performance could not have been magically shown, somehow, within its natural geophysical surroundings of plains, pueblos, mountains or mesas. Anyone who has seen Native American dances in such settings will know how much is lost by transposition to the theater, with its inevitable sense of artifice.

But it's precisely because not everyone can get to these sites easily, and because these dances are so worth seeing despite this, that the American Indian Dance Theatre came into being. And it's a high tribute to the troupe's accomplishment that the performance powerfully evokes its own aboriginal background -- the theater itself seems transformed into a bowl of nature by the vividness of the dancing, the drums, the chants and the stunningly colorful raiment.

The company of 24 performers, representing 16 tribal groups from nine states and two Canadian provinces, was organized in the summer of 1986 by founding producer Barbara Schwei and theatrical director-playwright Hanay Geiogamah, who were joined earlier this year by former Nikolais dancer Raoul Trujillo. The object was to gather skilled Native American dancers and musicians and an intertribal repertory that would represent a broad sampling of authentic Indian traditions, focused and formatted for the stage. Inaugural performances were mounted this past spring in Colorado Springs and Los Angeles.

Indian dances come in a great variety of types, but certain formal principles seem to be underlie most of them. The drums -- themselves embodiments of spirits -- and their beats are a primary wellspring. Stamping and hopping steps predominate, and a crouching stance, directing energies earthward, is ubiquitous. The most frequent spatial patterns are circles, lines, rectangles and serpentine curves. Within this framework, individual dances or dance types evolve extremely complex, subtle forms which rarely betray to the eye the strength, stamina and control they demand from executants.

The program at Ford's traverses some 14 genres of dance, performed without break or with the briefest of transitions, except for a single intermission. The continuity is essential; though the dances are distinct, the mood and intensity mount with the succession of dances and there's a splendid sense of integrity to the program as a whole.

After an initial invocation of the spirit of the drum, the first dance is a startling Eagle Dance, in which seven men swoop and hover with eagle wings along the full length of their arms. A Shield Dance introduces two warriors with brilliant plumage in the form of feather bustles, stalking each other in mock combat. A Traditional Dance ("traditional" here is a specialized term of categorization, a bit confusing since all the dances stem from tradition) brings on women dancers, in a vibrantly bouncing mode.

Each dance type is associated with legends of origin -- the program notes are helpful here. The amazing Grass Dance, for instance, in which three men simulate the rippling of grass by means of intricate, undulatory footwork and twisting torsos, is said by some to have begun as a dance of young men clearing a space for tribal ceremony. A Zuni Rainbow Dance, featuring spectacular headdresses adorned with colored arcs, is associated with thanksgiving for corn harvests. The Hoop Dance, performed here as a virtuosic solo in which the dancer manipulates wooden hoops into remarkably flamboyant shapes ringing his body, is bound up with a creation myth.

The second half is no less replete with treasures, among them a Zuni Buffalo Dance, an Apache Crown Dance -- at once solemn and awesome -- and the concluding Fancy Dance Contest, in which male bravura reaches its pinnacle.

You see what I mean. Extraordinary.