Pioneering modern dancer and choreographer Erick Hawkins grins as he speaks, knowing he's earned the right to some vanity.

"Don't you dare mention anything about my age," he says. "As anyone can see, I'm no spring chicken."

Actually he has never made a particular secret of his years. Why should he? At 78, he not only looks fit enough to climb into a boxing ring -- given his broad-shouldered, burly build, craggy features and erect posture, he'd intimidate many a younger opponent -- but also continues to perform in some of his dance works. For instance, in "Ahab," which will receive its Washington premiere during the week-long run of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company beginning Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Hawkins portrays the title role.

"It's one of my last attempts to make a character for myself," he asserts. "Obviously, I can't do jumps like I used to. But listen, I've had my fun. I don't need to show off anymore."

"Ahab" is Hawkins' distilled, highly stylized rendering of "Moby Dick." The dance work, with music by Ross Lee Finney, de'cor by Ralph Dorazio and masks by Ralph Lee, had its first performances in September last year at Harvard during the university's 350th anniversary celebration. The site was apt for many reasons, including the fact that Hawkins is a Harvard graduate. It was during his undergraduate days as a classics major that he decided upon dance as a career.

Working on "Ahab," Hawkins found himself stymied over a central choreographic issue. "What stopped me, for over a year, turned out in a way to be the crux of the work, its major esthetic point. How, I kept asking myself, can you put on stage as the principal character in a dance work a man with an ivory leg? I don't know how it came to me that the solution was to use knee britches and a long white stocking and white shoe for the leg the whale demolished, with the other leg in a regular-length dark trouser and boot.

"Capezio made the shoe and stocking specially to order. The point is that if the audience can accept the image, the stocking and shoe as the ivory leg, then they can be attuned without difficulty to the whole nonrealistic approach of the work. It's all a matter of poetic metaphor -- an image that suggests the reality but isn't in itself the real thing. It's the way the choreography and staging deal with all of Melville's imagery and incidents -- the whaling boats, the harpooning of Moby Dick, the sinking of the ship, everything."

His way of coming to grips with the ivory leg problem was typical of Hawkins. Bullheaded determination has seen him through a multitude of crises. Earlier this year, he learned he and his company were going to be booted out of the studio space on Manhattan's lower Fifth Avenue where they'd worked for 22 years. Intolerable rent increases were forcing them to move.

"We have until December to get out. We were immensely lucky to find a new place on 19th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue, but we'll have to scrap the existing floor and renovate to the tune of $70,000. How are we going to pay for this? I don't know. I'm just trusting we'll find a way."

That kind of blind trust has served him through precarious periods. Despite the economic hardships endemic to modern dance companies and well known to Hawkins, he states proudly: "I've never made an artistic compromise in my life." He means it. A perfect illustration has been his adamantine insistence on live music for every work and performance, in an era in which records and tapes have made the avoidance of high musical budgets a realistic possibility.

"It's a philosophical position with me," Hawkins says. "The spirit of the dance comes from the flutist with his living breath, his feeling, his pulse. It's what gives the dancing the sensation of being on the brink of now. It's what challenges dancers to react with immediacy. I know a lot of people say, 'I just can't afford live music.' Well, I've always said that I'll find a way, and somehow I have."

For Hawkins, making dances has almost always been a process of interacting with artists in other media. He's worked with such painters as Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, and most frequently in recent years, graphic artists Dorazio and Lee. He's collaborated with a great many composers beside Finney, among them Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Wallingford Riegger and David Diamond, as well as his longtime musical associate Lucia Dlugoszewski.

For his newest work, "God the Reveller," he commissioned music from Alan Hovhaness, which will of course be performed live at the Terrace Theater by the ensemble of nine musicians Hawkins travels with. The piece will be given its world premiere Wednesday night (and repeated Saturday). Inspired by the Greek legends of Dionysus, Hawkins views the work, again, in metaphorical terms.

"The death and rebirth of the god is something that is part of every living creature's experience," he says. "Every one of us encounters moments in his life when we're faced with severe choice -- we can go along with life, or give up and retreat. In this sense, the rebirth of the hero-god within us is part of our personal consciousness, as we move from despair to rejuvenation."

Hawkins has also long pondered the Nietzschean dichotomy between the raw, instinctive, libidinous Dionysian principle in art, and the opposing rational, cool and crystalline Apollonian mode.

Hawkins feels he learned about this distinction during his boyhood in the American west, later the scene of so much of his choreography. He was born in the outpost of Trinidad, Colo., where he can remember days when "the mud so caked the wagon wheels we couldn't make it into town." "Trinidad," he recalls, "fell exactly on the dividing line between the historic lands of the Plains Indians and those of the Pueblo peoples." Fascinated by these contrasting cultures, Hawkins traveled widely through the Indian territories of New Mexico and Arizona in an ancient Model A he owned at the time. "The Plains Indians, who were wanderers and hunters, exemplified the Dionysian principle," he says, "just as the Pueblo society, with its structured settlements, did the Apollonian."

His love for the Southwest and its native Americans and his later interest in classical antiquity were to become primary inspirational sources for Hawkins' creative labors. How he got started on them has become part of near-legendary dance lore. Seeing a recital by modern dance missionaries Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi led him to the decision to pursue dancing. Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein got him to enroll in the School of American Ballet, which Kirstein had just founded with the young George Balanchine. Hawkins danced in the early companies of Kirstein and Balanchine, and made his earliest choreographic work for one of them. Then, at Bennington College, he met Martha Graham, and Kirstein lent him money for lessons with her. In turn, he became the first male in Graham's troupe, the creator of many Graham roles, and, for a few brief years before his break, Graham's husband.

Molded in many ways by contact with these giants -- Kirstein, Balanchine, Graham -- Hawkins then gradually discovered and followed an artistic path of his own. The creative fruits of his journey, ranging across nearly half a century, will be on view in the Terrace programs, which will include, beside "Ahab" and "God the Reveller," eight other works dating from 1941 to 1986.