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Dan Safer Of Witness Relocation On "Surveys the Prairie Of Your Room" at LaMaMa Moves! Festival

Dan Safer Of Witness Relocation On "Surveys the Prairie Of Your Room" at LaMaMa Moves! Festival

Published on May 15, 2019
Photo credit: Jesse Anders

As part of 2019 LaMaMa Moves! Festival
May 18-19, 2019; Saturday at 9PM & Sunday at 5PM
Ellen Stewart Theatre | 66 East 4th Street (2nd Floor)

Surveys the Prairie Of Your Room, titled after a David Bowie lyric, is an exhilarating and healing meditation for the uncertain times: it’s a study of low-grade euphoria caused by the subtle stimuli, and a preponderance on the way things go, or could go, in any number of directions. The viewer is left unsure which one is right. It’s about things that happen in liminal spaces. It’s about ASMR recordings. And ultimately, is about trying to be happy when everything has gone to hell. Composed as an uninterrupted movement sequence accompanied by Heather Christian’s dreamy score and the original text by playwright Kate Scelsa (Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf) – delivered in the electrifying voice of Grace McLean – this highly kinetic and physically demanding piece is, paradoxically, about stillness that soothes both body and mind. More information HERE

Dan Safer. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

Sammi Lim for The Dance Enthusiast: It’s been 7 years since my editor reviewed "I'm Going to Make A Small Incision Behind Your Ear To Check And See If You're Actually Human" at Dance New Amsterdam. Do you still drink & dance?

Dan Safer: Ha. No. I still dance a lot but I quit drinking about a year and a half ago. That was a super fun show, though.

As a hardcore David Bowie fan, what was your reaction to the news of his passing in 2016?

Dan Safer: I found out he'd died while I was on the Amtrak headed from upstate NY to the city for a rehearsal. I ugly cried the whole ride and went out and got a tattoo that says, “Oh look out you rock’n’rollers” on my lunch break. I was totally devastated and couldn't listen to Black Star for over a year. As a wayward misunderstood youth who didn't fit in with anyone around me, Bowie was a lifeline and an example that it was okay to be a freak show. This was pre-internet, so there were not many examples in suburban New Jersey at the time.

Every show I have done for around twenty years has had a Bowie song in it somehow.

Witness Relocation / Dan Safer with Ae Andreas. Photo by Sharkey Weinberg

What pushed you to create a full-length duet for the first time?

Dan Safer: I’m always looking for what I don’t know how to do. If I’m not risking anything, not pushing myself, I might as well stay home, you know? I’ve made lots of duets, but short ones inside of shows: they emerge and then go away. The only other two-person show I’ve created was a piece I made with one of my heroes, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and that was different because it was largely improvised and only 15 minutes long or so; I shared the heavy lifting with Ish.

With Witness Relocation, I’m really big on ensemble and montage and shifting groups — it’s kind of how I’ve always worked. Our last show The Loon had a large cast and technical team, and was my favorite thing we had ever done. Audiences were really into it, but it was just too many people for the production to tour or keep on presenting. Too expensive, too many conflicting schedules, et cetera. When I teach or talk to other people from the performance world, I always advice them that it's “better to make a great 5 minutes than a pretty good 10 minutes,” and talk about “look at what you actually have and make the best thing you can out of that.” I was broke after Loon, and felt like I needed a shift from the ensemble pieces. I had wanted to make a thing with Ae Andreas for a while; they were my teaching assistants at NYU for a few years, so we were constantly dancing together and work well really together. I realized that, given the parameters of time and money and resources, the best thing I could do — and the best challenge to myself — would be to put on a small show, just two people, myself being one of them, with minimal lighting, simple sound cues, no set, ultra portable, relying only on the bodies of the performers and their relationship to each other and the audience. We made the piece to work in non-theatrical spaces as well, so it can happen in galleries, hotel lobbies, or wherever. It just needs a sound system and a blackout. If it’s in a theater, we have three light cues, if it’s in a “found space”, we have one.

Witness Relocation / Dan Safer with Ae Andreas. Photo by Sharkey Weinberg

What about queer performance artist Ae Andreas inspires you?

Dan Safer: Make a fucking list! They were originally my students at NYU, and I used to pester them about always pointing their toes and to be “dancey”, but that was a few years ago now. After they joined Witness Relocation, they became my teaching assistant, also at NYU. We taught together every week, and were always demonstrating and dancing together. We've really gotten to know each other and how we fit in incredibly deep ways. Plus, we're really close friends who hang out all the time, so they know what the inside of my head is like.

Add to all that, they are an awesome collaborator and generator of material and a far better technical dancer than I am. The way I work is so collaborative that I rely on people to be fucking amazing. I've directed and choreographed this show, but it is 100% a collaboration between Ae and me. It would not exist as it is without them.

I used to want to be the lead singer of the band, you know? Like I always thought of Witness Relocation as a punk band in the dance/theater world. Last fall, Ae and I went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and I realized that in this piece, Ae is Nick Cave, and I'm Warren Ellis, Nick's band leader and crazy scraggly multi-instrumentalist and wild man. So I’m the band leader but not the front man. It makes sense. On Loon, Rob Johanson was the front man. It’s just taken me a while to recognize how we operate, and now that I have, I’m really into it. Also, check out Ae's drag alter ego God Complex, who just won Brooklyn Nightlife Drag King of the year, and you'll be like, "Holy fucking shit."

Which of Heather Christian’s songs on her Youtube channel best exemplify what to expect of the score she created for your piece? I'd like to form an impression.

Dan Safer: Heather and I have been working together for over 15 years; she used to be one the main performers in the company. Here’s a video of us in a duet from way back in the day:

None of the stuff on her YouTube really represents what Heather has done with this piece. She's made some beautiful orchestral stuff and some pop stuff and some clunky noise stuff and some ambient stuff. And it all ties together because she's a genius. You can hear a bit in this video trailer:

Why show this piece at La MaMa Moves as opposed to other dance festivals?

Dan Safer: Besides the fact that Witness Relocation is a resident company at La Mama, La MaMa it is 100% my home. I’ve been showing work there, in the very space we're now doing Prairie, since 2006. I feel like it makes sense to do this official premiere at La Mama — it’s so much a part of me, and this piece is so personal. I love being part of the lineage of the place, and working with the people there. I’m gonna call out Nicky Paraiso and Mia Yoo and Juan Merchan, but the list goes on and on and on. That said, if other dance festivals want this piece after we premiere it at La Mama Moves, the whole thing fits in a suitcase and Ae and I are ready to hop on a plane. This thing travels LIGHT. Hit me up!

Share a fun fact about yourself with our readers?

Dan Safer: I have over 40 tattoos; I got kicked out of high school but am now faculty at MIT; I once choreographed the Queen of Thailand's birthday party; I used to be a go-go dancer. That’s more than one fact. Hopefully I’m fun enough to warrant that.

The Dance Enthusiast Asks Questions and Creates Conversation.
For more of The Dance Enthusiast Asks, click here.

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