If dance is really such a mutable creative enterprise, so ephemeral that choreography sometimes vanishes into the thin ether of history, then why don't choreographers keep changing their works until they've reached an ultimate form? Aren't they as prone to second-guessing themselves as other kinds of artists?
In fact, some choreographers do keep working on dances long after they've premiered. Take, for example, Nina Wiener's "Enclosed Time," which will reach Los Angeles on April 24 in Royce Hall, UCLA, nearly two years after its premiere.
Commissioned and produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its 1985 "Next Wave" festival, "Enclosed Time" began life as "In Closed Time," a three-act piece with separate scores for each act (written by Meredith Monk, Sergio Cervetti, and Elliot Sharp), a phalanx of sexy costumes by Robin Klingensmith, 19 dancers (14 from outside Wiener's company), and a set of 10 massive architectural elements designed by the award-winning firm Arquitectonica.
With its loose narrative of a historical evolution of sexual relationships and its piquant choreography, "In Closed Time" drew positive notices, but it also seemed to provoke a certain degree of critical head-scratching.
"One was occasionally unsure what point she wished to make," wrote Jack Anderson in the New York Times.
Oddly, Wiener was puzzled by her creation.
"When it went up at dress rehearsal," said the 39-year-old choreographer (a former member of the Twyla Tharp company), "I knew something was wrong but I couldn't tell what it was.
"But when I was finally able to sit in the audience and feel the response, I realized that such extensive costuming and sets had really clouded what I was doing."
On the second night of the Brooklyn season, Wiener took out a few of the Arquitectonica set pieces. Indeed, she would have taken out even more, but, she says, "I felt I was under pressure not to--since the New York State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts had paid for it." That seemed to help, but Wiener knew it wasn't enough.
Over the next year and a half, Wiener kept thinking about "In Closed Time."
"I looked at the videotape all the time," she said. "I felt that I really had to solve the problems in this dance. I didn't know exactly why people weren't getting it, what all the puzzlement was about."
With help from the Brooklyn academy in the form of a touring grant that provided for several two-week residencies around the country, Wiener had the chance to start anew.
The first thing to go was the title.
"It wasn't really any big artistic thing," she said. "I just felt like 'In Closed Time' was a little more negative and more about closure, but 'Enclosed Time' seems a little more about holding time."
However, by the time her company went to Anchorage, Alaska, for the first residency focused exclusively on "Enclosed Time," the choreographer also began to bring other aspects of the dance into line with her feeling that the psychologically associative core of the piece needed strengthening:
"When I saw it in performance, I realized that I'd overdressed the ideas in the piece and that I hadn't left any room for the tiny narrative allusions my work depends on. I thought I was making it bigger, but in fact I was making it smaller, taking out the open-endedness, all the allusions. That didn't work."
In Alaska, Wiener finally made the changes she thought were long overdue: re-choreographing the third act, changing some of the costumes, further eliminating some scenic units that she thought were cluttering the stage, arranging for a new lighting scheme, adding a program note, and (finally) reducing the number of outside dancers she was using to augment her six-member company.
It is this version that her company will perform in Royce Hall.
In the final analysis, Wiener believes it was only through working out the kinks in "Enclosed Time" that she was able to make the journey from working with bald narrative elements to exploring her sense of dramatic and psychological dynamics.
"You know, when you make a work," she said, "you play with a lot of ideas. Some of them have to do with your personal growth as a choreographer, some have to do with your connection to the audience, and some have to do with just what your emotional interests are at that time. And they're all there."
The trick is that not every choreographer is willing to admit that such changes can be made. Wiener is one of the few who do.