In the first program by Daniel West Dancers at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Tuesday night, the brief, partial nudity in the duet "Pien di desir" -- though plainly erotic in intent -- seemed to offend no one.
With the company's second program in the same theater last night, once again filled to capacity, it was another story. By the end of the hour-long, uninterrupted "Industrial Nights," about a third of the audience had left. Presumably, it wasn't sex that drove them away, though the piece has its share of erotic insinuation and imagery, but violence -- physical, psychic and sonic violence, along with an obsessive monotony of means.
"Industrial Nights," which had its premiere a year ago at Dance Place, is a human -- some would doubtless say inhuman -- battering ram of a dance-theater work. The performers batter each other literally, the audience figuratively, and the esthetic boundaries of art and culture in both senses.
To what end? The portion of the spectators that abandoned the performance probably regarded it as a form of punishment, and there's no doubt it had a punitive look and atmosphere. Simply put, choreographer West was trying to give us a slant on the mad world we call "civilized," by noting to what degree it has become ugly, harsh, noxious, cruel, self-lacerating, fearsome and irrational.
It's a curious fact that the audience members who left didn't leave right off the bat; it took maybe 20 minutes before two or three set the ball rolling. Perhaps they were hoping against hope that the work would suddenly turn into "Swan Lake," or some modern facsimile. But then, many probably went home, tuned in TV news, and ate ice cream during a recital of the day's shootings, rapes, muggings and drug busts. It's what they go to the theater to escape.
West's dance works aren't escapist. On the other hand, they aren't monochromatically barbaric either. There are parts and aspects of "Industrial Nights" that suggest that this insane contemporary world of ours, however vicious, is at the same time funny, mysterious, paradoxical and incongruously charming. Amid all the bashing of bodies and cacophonic din, there's a passage in which the dancers assemble into a chorus line for a mock rendition of "Tea for Two"; elsewhere, a performer distributes bananas to the audience from an old vaudeville hat; and elsewhere still, a Mozart aria is heard on the sound track, as the dancers parody the frilliness of ballet.
The essential irony of West's vision comes into clearer focus by comparison with the works of Pina Bausch, the neo-expressionist German choreographer who was West's mentor for a while and has exerted a conspicuously strong influence on his own creations. The two share the use of permuted repetition as a basic formal principle, along with brutality of physical expression and imagery, and a jaundiced view of society.
Bausch's dancers, however, almost always seem like zombies, their faces often deathly in pallor and their movements suggestive of an exhaustion both corporeal and spiritual. It's an archetypically continental outlook. West's dancers, by contrast -- though they sometimes stagger or collapse as if in drunken stupor, or, like West himself in "Industrial Nights," stare vacantly as if narcotically stoned -- remain obviously youthful, vigorous and athletic. If they bang each other around a lot, and turn erotic clinches into kung-fu bouts, they do so with a vitality that is very New World, very aerobic.
In short, West Americanizes his expressionism. And if you throw in the elements of mockery and comic distancing in "Industrial Nights" -- "Tea for Two," the bananas, the Mozart aria and other, related counterpoints -- you end up with an indictment of modern life that has to be understood as fundamentally ambivalent. It's the work's distinctiveness and its source of power.
The house lights were up as the audience took seats, and the dancers were on stage -- the women in bras and slips, the men bare chested except for West, all toting or wearing olive-drab trenchcoats, some lying, some sitting, some aimlessly pacing. They were enclosed within a metal fence with a fringe of barbed wire (the original Dance Place set, including huge girders, was credited to John Connole; it's been modified for the Terrace stage). Also within the enclosure were a wash basin, a gas tank, a folded cot, a chair, a platform with a microphone and bullhorn, a rusted ashcan, and large, plastic bags filled with garbage.
The first sound heard was a chirping of birds, but the rest of the aural background -- except for the above-noted excursions to pop song, Mozart and in a relatively becalmed interlude, Scottish bagpipes -- consisted of industrial sounds: motors, buzz saws, jackhammers, screechings, clankings, whooshings, drillings and poundings. Particles of movement were passed from one dancer to another -- violent slicing of arms, whole body tremors, sudden flops to the floor, anxious marchings. Male-female encounters sometimes began with embraces but invariably ended in violent punches, kicks or dumpings to the floor or fence. An "outsider," Susan Mumford, entered from the audience arguing with an usher about her seat, then clambered onto the stage, fishing a black suit from the garbage can and donning it, and thereafter acted as a kind of punk master-of-ceremonies, using the mike and bullhorn for readings, songs and commentary. At the end of the piece, the light narrowed to a single spot on West at center stage, as the four women in turn dove at him from the corners, knocking him to the floor two dozen times in rapid succession, screaming out as they started "Danny" (or was it "daddy"?; in context, it would amount to the same thing).
Mumford, who serves as a sort of audience surrogate, has a couple of lines that come closest to stating West's meaning explicitly: "We're all just trying to be human here," she says plaintively at one point, and at another, "I hope you can keep a sense of humor about this." Though the violence was real (Annette Neely left the stage bloodied), ultimately, West's bark is deliberately worse than his bite. For artistic daring, formal control, conceptual bravado, and yes, showmanship, "Industrial Nights" is decidedly a tour de force.
The superb cast included, beside West, Mumford and Neely, Joe Drayton, Elizabeth Godfrey, Emily Kinnamon, Tom Mills, Jan Steckel and Ben Watts.