IN mythology there is a central theme that scholars have studied for decades: The Great Mother conceives a glorious son, who is born and flourishes in the long days of summer, only to perish before the first chill of winter, taking with him the flowers of the meadows and the leaves of the trees. Out of this death comes perpetual renewal, as he reappears in a world transformed by spring. The recent dance works of choreographer Erick Hawkins are meditations on such mythic springtimes. At age 80, the renowned choreographer has apparently attained a regenerative vision of life, and it fills his new dances with a poetic resonance, immediacy, and joy. In fact, Hawkins's most recent dance - a work called ``New Moon'' that received its world premi`ere during the season at the Joyce Theatre here - is one of the most genuinely beautiful products of 20th-century dance.
And another offering, a large work created by Mr. Hawkins in 1988, called `Cantilever Two,'' excels in its use of the body as a projectile capable of fragile flights and profound soarings into the vast and vivid space of dance itself. Performed to a piano concerto with chamber orchestra by composer Lucia Dlugoszewski, ``Cantilever Two'' is an exceptional celebration of youthful renewal.
In this exquisite collaboration between composer and choreographer, Hawkins once again proves capable of giving dance its own inner momentum as well as an astonishing kinship with Dlugoszewski's music - a score of fantastic energies.
In the performance I saw recently at the Joyce, the ensemble of 12 dancers performed ``Cantilever Two'' with skill and conviction. In fact, the Erick Hawkins Dance Company has never looked better.
As for ``New Moon,'' Hawkins has said it ``is an exact embodiment of the human need to begin again. The new moon is a metaphor for such a resurgence of life.''
The choreographer has good reason to relish the renewal of life. Early in 1988, illness forced him to postpone the creation of ``New Moon.'' The arduous realization of that dance came late last year, at a time when Hawkins was making his way back into the world. And so, it became a dance about beginning again, about the silver moon of the Mother Goddess that gradually diminishes and dies, only to begin again, until its wholeness is restored.
``New Moon'' was created by Hawkins in an era when beauty has become something of an artistic curiosity. But Hawkins's sense of beauty is not built on niceties and artistic pretensions. For him, beauty is delight made visible. ``The natural state of man's mind,'' he is fond of quoting from a Japanese poem, ``is delight.''
The commissioned score by American composer Lou Harrison possesses a rare delicacy and lyricism, impelling the dancers toward fluidity and transparency. The ritual stage-world of ``New Moon'' is an evocative allusion to a cosmos of light. The sculptural setting by Ralph Dorazio is perfectly matched by the translucency of Robert Engstrom's lighting design and by the elegant costumes that flow and flutter with every movement of the dancers. Hawkins is noted for the eloquent ritualism of his stagings. With ``New Moon'' he has surely surpassed himself.
Born in Trinidad, Colo., Hawkins earned a degree in Greek culture from Harvard University. Inspired to become a dancer when he saw performances by the experimental European choreographers Harold Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi, he became the first American student in George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. Hawkins eventually left the ballet world to become the first male dancer in the then-blossoming Martha Graham Company, where he originated many celebrated roles before leaving in 1951 to open his own school and create his own dances.
Today, the Erick Hawkins Dance Company is the realization of years of uncompromising creative effort. At the Joyce Theatre, the Hawkins dancers were completely at home in the imaginative world of ``New Moon.'' Though it is difficult to single out one of the dancers, there is little doubt that Katherine Duke represents the idealization of Hawkins's four decades of creating dance.
The company will perform in Philadelphia, Feb. 13-18. From April through May, it will tour in Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arizona.