Everything is there where you got nothing left. Dan Safer at La MaMa Moves, finally.
I tend to focus what little writing time I have on specific representational demographics, but when it came to Dan Safer’s return to ‘the dance world,’ I arrived as Susan Sontag would say as “an enthusiast and a partisan.” I’ve know Dan since we shared a Fresh Tracks program at the Dance Theater Workshop of yore well before any of our current students (his once at NYU, now at MIT, mine at Hunter) had a diaper to shit in. In the ensuing decades, he brought his punk rock ethos and ballztothewallz physicality to several award winning works with his troupe, Witness Relocation and many riotous collaborations around the world. A resident company of La MaMa, Dan hacked the typical flyby treatment of dance with WR’s highly theatrical but exceptionally choreographed ensemble pieces that received (theater) standard 3-week runs. Working in what some call devised theater and others call composition he only just now has finally joined the ranks of La MaMa Moves dance festival artists in a 2-shows-only run of Surveys the Prairie of Your Room this past weekend in the front entryway of the Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Co-created and performed by Dan and the always rapturous Ae Andreas, a lead member of WR, Surveys, is like a blunt sprinkled with molly except without the residual chemical nasties. Okay, you can’t really smoke molly but whatever, this piece will get you altered. It tingles the nervous system and grinds you into a breathless oblivion from which Dan, Ae, Obie-winning composer and former WR performer Heather Christian, playwright Kate Schelsa and voice over narrator Grace McLean pour out visual and sonic opiates, killing the pain through a seriously loving beat down. Following a sequence of repeated, arthritis inducing crashes to the floor, Dan’s proto-punk alignment with nihilistic impulses rang resoundingly. Dan Safer is the devil you’ve been dying to dance with and Ae’s enviable lines and swag make them an optimal fiend friend for that dance card. Sitting at the feet of these two rock stars, our high was reached via a sobering exploration of undoing oneself through relentless vigor and focused disappearing.
However, this is a sobriety that feeds not off of an absence of externally imbibed chemicals but rather, off of serious clarity, seeing things as they are without clouded vision. It was less Nietzsche’s ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and more what doesn’t kill you brings you fully into the present. But, despite the merciless commitment to exhaustion, it retains playfulness and evolves into deeply poignant and sometimes soothing encounters between two careful, vulnerable phenoms. When at different moments either Ae or Dan covers their eyes and reaches a hand out into the darkness, an entire life of blindly seeking comfort in the company of others unfolds. Their inter-relational ease, based on both a kindred history and a radical being-ness they both inhabit as performers, allowed hope to ooze out of the pores of this piece, no matter how many times Ae walked all over Dan. And, Ae proved quite adept at that recurring task especially while log rolling Dan’s rotating prone sweaty and spent form.
It’s a simple premise to just keep on keepin’ on – to try to sooth restlessness by exhausting all energies. One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. The evening length duet, a first for Safer who has tended towards the potency of a brief fling or the multiplicities of ensemble work, is ripe with his signature urgency and verve. However, secreted away into the folds of the dance was the need for another to hold onto and not only to bounce off of. This is also not necessarily a new thematic idea, but the sustained effort accumulated a new kind of rapport. These two truly had their partner’s back. Without any pathos, an overwhelming connectivity surfaced repeatedly, resurrecting like the zombie-fab Ministry of Supply suit-clad bodies that continued to rise after each apparent collapse.
The sense of longing hummed at the edges of our consciousness alongside Grace McLean’s dark-ASMR inspired voice and Heather Christian’s lush, pulsing and evocative score. Perhaps my perception of the embedded loneliness was a byproduct of the dystopia of contemporary existence or some kind of middle-aged-malaise empathic vibrations. Or the voice over, written by Kate Schelsa, echoed enough of the ASMR-for-insomnia environ that solitary sleepless nights seemed a never-ending reality. McLean’s reading turns on you like a Welcome to Night Vale episode – insidiously spiriting us away from pure banality into the dreadful pains of existence where we face the nocturnal demons of eternal return. Asking our selves for the solace that is staying with the struggle in order to strengthen the muscle that is kindness.
In the end, accepting for a second that Surveys was not actually transmuted deities at play, I could imagine our sweat drenched protagonist facing Nietzsche’s thought experiment: What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” In the final second of the duet, Ae stood before a seated Dan and suddenly exploded into a rain of colorful confetti before instantly disappearing into the void of a black out. In a delightful amor fati ending was Dan’s answer to the abyss, a resounding affirmation to ride the enter catastrophe of living with plenty of fervor and a healthy dose of “fuck it.”