Many dance performances have so many other elements at work - dialogue, visual apparatus, pointedly everyday gesture - that they recoil from the simple category of dance. What is it, audiences are likely to ask. What often we don't hear is the creator himself posing that question: Who am I?
David Gordon, one of today's most popular melange artists, asks the question in his new ''Trying Times,'' which runs at the experimentally oriented Dance Theater Workshop through Dec. 20. The question comes to a head at the end of Act I. The dancers in his group, called with typical Gordon wit the Pick Up Company, have been playing anagrams with the words, ''Who are you anyway?'' Finally, the question is put straight to Gordon himself. Instead of answering, the music of Stravinsky's ''Apollo'' looms loud as the lights dim.
Is Gordon really what his reputation says he is: postmodern, radical, anticlassical, antiballet? Or does he side with the music, which, in being the score that drew from George Balanchine his first ballet masterpiece, is emblematic of all the Apollonian standards Gordon and his ilk oppose?
Act II answers (well, more or less) the question. First, the dancers actually dance to the music, the references to Balanchine's ''Apollo'' lessening as Gordon's own viewpoint develops. I can do it my way, the dance declares in a lyrical yet postmodern style - that is, Gordon puts the steps together with classical clarity and repose, yet the dancers' phrasing is flat, absolutely undecorated.
Then suddenly, all the props that have been so important in the first section - but in an abstract way - are reassembled to create a courtroom. Gordon puts himself on trial, with the dialogue as zany as only Gordon can make it. Whenever the judge asks ''on what grounds,'' Gordon's lawyer looks to the spot on which she's standing and says, ''right here.''
And so this deliciously absurd satire proceeds until Gordon is acquitted - well, not so much acquitted as left in peace - for being what he is: an iconoclast.
''Trying Times'' is funny, lambent, whimsical, knowing, choreographically inventive - and often trying in its tediousness. Gordon often beats an idea to the ground. Be all of that as it may, ''Trying Times'' is basically an act of hubris. Who does Gordon think he is to warrant a trial? Socrates? And as for the ''Apollo'' bit, Balanchine doesn't have to worry about the competition.
True that much of Gordon's ''Apollo'' is lovely, but the cosmic context in which the dance is set can't help but minimalize whatever truly wonderful stuff Gordon does.