The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, the West Coast's preeminent contemporary troupe, made its downtown Washington debut at the Dance Place Tuesday night in a fascinating, strikingly diversified and superbly performed program.
The company had just played the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it became the first West Coast troupe to participate in the prestigious Next Wave Festival. There was a wan irony in the Washington appearance. In a lecture-demonstration Monday evening, Jenkins chronicled her uphill struggle to survive in San Francisco and to establish a space for her own and visiting troupes. Now, just when the Dance Place has gained the stature of Jenkins' New Performance Gallery, and companies like Jenkins' have become standard fare here, the Dance Place is being forced by escalating rent to vacate the site it so bravely cultivated for five years (the current lease expires Jan. 31).
Jenkins' choreography has intelligence, force and imagination. She's fond of structural complexity and the layered meanings that implies, and she's devoted -- like Merce Cunningham, whose assistant she once was -- to collaborations with artists of other media. She also regards her six splendidly committed dancers as collaborators in the creative process, to which they contribute materially. And Jenkins herself, at 42, remains as potent a stage presence as remembered from her engagement at the Prince George's Publick Playhouse in 1978.
''Pedal Steal,'' just premiered at BAM, seemed a far remove from the Cunninghamesque abstractions of Jenkins' '78 program. Cunningham traces are still evident in the way Jenkins treats space and in her movement vocabulary. But ''Pedal Steal,'' a collaboration with performance artist Terry Allen, is an impression of the West in the form of a rambunctious collage. This is not the idealized West of John Ford, but the grungy, profane, hard-shelled, cornball and sexy West of Robert Altman or Sam Shepard. The dancers, in hot pants, string ties and other, more wildly tacky duds, suggest a gallery of characters preoccupied with whoring, boozing and fighting, but also with the loneliness of the vast western expanse. Slides and silhouettes projected on a graffiti-framed screen evoke everything from sleazy motel rooms to pickup trucks to gaping canyons, while Allen's country rock songs and raunchy monologues make aural parallels.
Jenkins' sense of order and Allen's unruliness sometimes clash, as when the choreography takes a classical turn. More harmonious, and in a totally different vein, was ''Inside Outside (Stages of Light),'' for which Jenkins' collaborators were artist Barbara Kasten and composer Bill Fontana. Only parts of Kasten's set could be fit into Dance Place, but its Corinthian columns, tall pyramid and triangular mirror were a perfect complement to the metallic clangor of Fontana's score, and to the cool collineations of the choreography, which seemed by turns combative and affectionate in tone.
The most concentrated and affecting piece was the brief duet ''Whatever Happened to Tina Croll?,'' to music by Philip Glass and Lou Harrison. The work opened with an explosive clatter as dancer Mercy Sidbury shook a bagful of plastic disks to the floor, and it proceeded to pit Sidbury's erratic, violent, harried outbursts against the measured calm of Jenkins. Disparities in age and size (Jenkins is tall) suggested a mother-daughter or teacher-pupil relationship; charged looks exchanged between the women added depth to the poignant atmosphere, a mixture of alienation and empathy.