'King of Provocation' Choreographer Daniel West Dies

Daniel West's subjects included mental hospitals and drinking. Germany banned one piece:
Daniel West's subjects included mental hospitals and drinking. Germany banned one piece: "How Terrorists Ruined Our Travel Plans." (1989 Twp File Photo By Harry Naltchayan - 1989 Twp File Photo By Harry Naltchayan)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

Daniel West, 62, the choreographer considered the enfant terrible of Washington's dance community in the 1980s, died of smoke inhalation Sept. 9 in a house fire at his home in Bryans Road in Southern Maryland.

Mr. West was the art world's "king of provocation" whose work had done "a bang-up job of shocking, infuriating and invigorating audiences with his neurosis- and violence-laced pieces," dance critic Pamela Sommers wrote in The Washington Post in 1990. He was also considered expert in his choice of dancers, innovative in staging and imaginative in compositions.

His work included dances about drinking, mental hospitals, baseball and a provocative piece banned in Germany for its title: "How Terrorists Ruined Our Travel Plans."

He was used to controversy, and courted it. "You Go On Ahead, I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," set to the music of John Cage, featured six regulars in a cafe who experience alcoholic symptoms ranging from dozing off to vomiting to getting the shakes. Mr. West called this "a lighthearted romp through the joys and pains of a drinking life."

Although audience members sometimes walked out of his shows and one critic said she had nightmares after one of his performances, reviewers mostly adored him.

"The political and social themes and tone of Mr. West's dances suggest he may be the nation's angriest young choreographer, as well as one of the most controversial, though his work is often funny and filled with a sleek and brutal elegance," dance reviewer Jennifer Dunning wrote in the New York Times in 1988.

In 1991, Mr. West quit the arts and became a carpenter, welder and painter who built sets for television and stage.

"He was exhausted from having to do everything, from raising money to making costumes himself," said Mary Connole, a friend of many years.

It was not the first time Mr. West suddenly changed direction. Before becoming a choreographer, he had been a pastry chef, making cheesecakes for local restaurants. He had been a soldier, a bartender, a college baseball player, a rodeo athlete and a newspaper reporter.

"While I knew he was a dancer, I don't think I realized ever until the last two weeks what kind of reputation he and his dance company had," said Michael Foley, owner of TSA Inc., the Lorton company where for the past 15 years Mr. West built sets for presidential debates, among other tasks. "He was very quiet and modest about that part of his life. . . . I knew I could send him out on a work site and he would charm everybody."

He was born in La Crosse, Wis., the son of an Army officer. He grew up around the world, including in Seattle, in La Rochelle, France, and finally in Killeen, Tex. An outdoorsman from youth, he loved to fish, hunt and explore caves. He also loved baseball, and when his high school baseball coach worried that his southpaw pitcher was gaining weight, he sent him to his first dance class.

Mr. West went on to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Tex., where he pitched on the college baseball team and joined the championship rodeo team, where he said he rode bulls, although his only surviving relative, his brother George West of Austin, remembered him as a bronc rider.

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