“Surveys the Prairie of Your Room” is a new show by Witness Relocation, a company led by choreographer Dan Safer which was co-created by Ae Andreas, with music by award-winning composer and performer Heather Christian. Named for a David Bowie lyric, the performance took two years to complete and focuses on the multiple directions any given situation can go, especially in liminal spaces. The piece includes text by the well-known playwright Kate Scelsa, read by well-known off-Broadway actress Grace McLean and is a 60-minute uninterrupted sequence of virtuosic dancing. The work, which is presented as part of La MaMa’s 2019 LA MAMA MOVES! Dance festival, tries to answer the timely question: how to be happy even when everything seems to be going wrong.
Recently via an exclusive interview Dan Safer discussed this piece and the creative processes behind it.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get involved with the theater and how did you get the idea for “Surveys the Prairie of Your Room”?
Dan Safer (DS): When I was a little kid, I would put on a suit and make my parents and their friends watch me thrash around on the floor while I played a BeeGees Greatest Hits cassette. “Prairie” is basically that, to be honest, just filtered through forty-six years of life. The original idea was to challenge myself to make a duet where I’m one of the performers as well, and also an exploration of what people do in hotel rooms and other liminal spaces.
MM: What led you to develop Witness Relocation and how would you describe its productions?
DS: The company has been around for almost twenty years. I think we’re like a cross between post-modern dance theater, East Village nightclub shows from the 1990s, and Jackass with a heavy dose of pageantry a la Peter Greenaway movies and a kind of raw bluntness like you find in a punk show. Also, the title for this show has been borrowed from a David Bowie song which should tell audiences a lot about where our inspirations come from.
MM: What was the devising process like and how important were your collaborators on this project?
DS: This work is ALL about the people who made it. Ae Andreas is half of the piece and they are an amazing partner to create with. Heather Christian wrote a beautiful score – she knows my work and the inside of my head in a deep, long standing way that you only get out of over fifteen years of friendship and collaboration. Kate Scelsa is an INCREDIBLE writer who adapted the text we found and brought it to a new level. Grace McLean has the most perfect subtle voice and killed the recording of the voice-over. Ministry of Supply gave us indestructible suits that I can sweat in, have four way stretch so you can dance in them, and then throw in the washing machine.
Ae and I worked on and off for almost two years on this, at my place upstate, then in a residency at Skirball Center (thank you Jay Wegman, I love you!), with a showing at Little Theater/ Dixon Place, a residency at Orchard Project with a showing in the back room of a bar in Saratoga Springs, a residency at NYU Abu Dhabi. We’ve been digging in and revising and digging back in over and over.
MM: What is it about this work that you think will most interest audiences—in other words, what can they expect?
DS: It’s a sustained relationship right up close – the audience surrounds us and is free to move around, view from where they want. It’s intensely physical and very intimate, and Ae and I really go through the wringer on this one. It’s also goofy and sad and beautiful (I think) and has some of my favorite choreography the company has ever done.
MM: How did you start working with LaMaMa and what do you enjoy most about working with them?
DS: I’ve been doing shows there since 2006, when the great Ellen Stewart – the mama of LaMaMa – first booked us. That place is home. We are a resident company at this venue and I feel totally supported and part of something there.
MM: This show focuses on trying to stay positive no matter what—how important do you consider that philosophy overall?
DS: I wouldn’t exactly say that. I think the show focuses on dealing with your current reality and trying to not get swept underneath it. Is that the same as staying positive? Maybe. I don’t think life is as simple as ‘stay positive’, although I do think that is a good idea.
MM: What other theatrical projects are you working on as we move into 2019?
DS: I’ve choreographed the new The Civilians show “Paul Swan Is Dead & Gone” by Claire Kechel – it runs at Torn Page in Chelsea thru May 19th and its great. Next fall. I’m making a new piece at MIT (I’m on faculty there now) with the actor Robert M. Johanson and the extraordinary musician Sxip Shirey. I want to make a solo for myself – I figure after making a duet, which was a thing I had no idea how to do, I should tackle a solo – I REALLY have no idea how to do that.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
DS: I think our perception of reality is inherently flawed and what we see is not really what is going on, but rather it is a kind of agreed upon consensus that we will operate inside this version of a hallucination. But that’s a really long conversation.
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Surveys the Prairie of your Room runs on May 18 and 19 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. For more info, visit lamama.org/surveys/