The arts seldom move forward in a straight line -- detours, bypasses, tail-chasings and backtrackings are more the rule than the exception. A case in point is the evolution of choreographer Laura Dean, who returned to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night for the second year in a row as a Dance America series attraction. The glory of the evening's program was the last piece, "Dance," created in 1976 but seen now for the first time in Washington. The two more recent works of the first half -- "Sky Light" and "Solo in Red," both also Washington premieres and both choreographed in 1982 -- looked pallid in comparison, despite their greater profusion of resources.

Dean came to prominence in the '70s as one of the most original and imaginative of the back-to-basics dance minimalists. Indeed, Dean seemed to wipe the slate clean of historical precedent, and started to make stark, repetitive pieces based on primordial elements -- walking, stamping, spinning and so forth, either in silence or to similarly rudimentary music (eventually composed by herself). She soon realized the inherent danger of entrapment in minimal purism, and in succeeding works gradually broadened her spectrum of means and techniques, transmuting steps and gestures from folk and non-western sources and even ballet, yet retaining the principle of modular repetition and permutation as her foundation. Spinning became her trademark, but her work deepened and developed, and as it did there ensued fellowships, commissions and a popular following, all assuredly deserved.

Spinning is only one ingredient among a multitude in the sextet, "Sky Light," where it is often used more as connective tissue than as a basic component (it's noteworthy, though, than the one sequence of spinning solos drew audience applause, as though these passages were virtuosic highlights). In fact, the more familiar atomic constituents of Dean's idiom are nearly swamped in this work by an obsession with ballet-derived steps and shapes, making the whole resemble the anonymous eclecticism of so much contemporary dance. The extensions in movement vocabulary here have the effect not of enrichment but of dilution--the core of Dean's choreographic persona is somehow obscured. Dean's drab percussion score and Michaele Vollbracht's distractingly unflattering costumes aren't much help.

The brief "Solo in Red" handsomely displays the splendor of Angela Caponigro as a dancer, but also lacks choreographic focus and consistency. The real power of Dean's art stood forth in a work in which she remains maximally minimal, so to speak, restricting herself to a compact gamut of moves, with spinning the most conspicuous among them. The very concentration of "Dance," with its hypnotically strumming autoharp score, made it by far the most engrossing piece of the evening, though it was also the longest (35 minutes). "Dance" grows like a tree, from the earth up; the newer works seemed like foliage without roots.