Dean Moss’s intriguing but frustrating Nameless forest (at the Kitchen through May 28) begins with a series of choices. The six performers, four men and two women, choose audience members to seat onstage; those they pick choose whether to accept. The performers are persuasive and offer cushions, but there are deep booms coming from the speakers, maybe growls. Eventually, 12 brave souls allow themselves to be grouped on the floor. A few performers join them, sitting much closer than strangers normally do. There’s a blackout. Louder growling. Uh-oh.
The choice of vantage does have consequences, though the threat of danger proves a tease. The onstage viewers are escorted in and out of the action. They’re added to a pile of bodies and left there after the dancers underneath wriggle away. They’re posed and positioned, serenaded and slapped, made participants in rituals for which they do not know the rules.
The dancers don’t always appear to know, either. Or rather their “characters” don’t, these people who share the dancers’ real names. The work is a collaboration with the Korean sculptor Sungmyung Chun, whose installations typically feature eerie, child-size figures bestowed with his face and a drop or two of blood. The Nameless forest set evokes a giant version of one of those figures, headless and arrested in mid-explosion, fragments suspended from the ceiling and a tangle of neon tubing hanging in the middle like electric guts. The dancers’ behavior suggests at once a lost tribe and disturbed children, terribly serious about the games they’re making up. The confusion is interesting.
So are the exaggerations of gender. Following some mosh-pit thrashing, the men eye each other anxiously as they stretch waistbands to peek at packages. The women hand out daisies and reach down between their own thighs. There’s uneasy comedy in this, an edge of terror—much like adolescence. When individuals are singled out (“Pedro!”), the encouragement is hard to distinguish from aggression. Kacie Chang—the soul of this, as of many Moss works—looks paralyzed with fear. Your heart goes out to her.
But then Moss abandons this forest for more tiresome ones. The work’s second part swaps the first part’s jungle noises for swaggering audio diaries by the photojournalist Michael Kamber. Earlier sequences repeat, but now the fantasy play turns obviously violent, all guns and grenades and hysterical laughter. In part three, the “initiation” of the audience participants is made explicit in a half-silly manner (chanting, dry baptisms), after which come banal interviews, a ritual for which everyone knows the rules.
Moss is fond of audience participation, of trading on the realness and vulnerability of non-performers. His last work, Kisaeng becomes you, instructed its recruits in the art of Korean courtesans, with some beguiling results. Nameless forest asks its conscripts only to be themselves, and the obedient opening-night volunteers seemed not to require initiation into this ultimately more familiar world. Only the performers acted out. Such participant compliance is a mark of persuasive skill, but here such control seems an unfortunate damper.
Moss has spoken of a vast difference between the two ways of experiencing Nameless forest—how, as in any initiation, what looks cruel and controlling from the outside can feel, on the inside, like an embrace. Perhaps it is more affecting for those who are in it. Sheltered in the bleachers, I felt Moss was playing it too safe for anything transformative to happen to them, much less to me.