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The Bluebird, Witness Relocation The Bluebird, Witness Relocation
photo Jonathan Slaff
DAN SAFER, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF NEW YORK BASED PERFORMANCE COMPANY WITNESS RELOCATION (FOUNDED IN 2000) APPROACHES PERFORMANCE MAKING AS AN ATTACK—MORE AKIN TO A BOXING MATCH OR A SPORTING EVENT. THE WORK AND HE ARE “PLAYING AGAINST EACH OTHER, COLLIDING WITH EACH OTHER, FACING EACH OTHER IN THE EYE.” IT IS THE STRUGGLE THAT IS IMPORTANT—A SERIES OF PROBLEMS TO BE SOLVED. AS A RESULT, MOST OF HIS SHOWS HAVE THE WORD ‘VERSUS’ IN THE TITLE: DANCING VS THE RAT EXPERIMENT OR DANCING VS BLOOD ON THE CAT’S NECK (NOTE THE ANIMAL THEME).

While in New York, thanks to the Victoria University Solo Residency Program, I‘m lucky enough to be invited into rehearsals of Witness Relocation’s most recent work, The Bluebird, a play by Mikuni Yanaihara of the acclaimed Japanese dance company Nibrol. The work premiered in January 2009 as part of the Spotlight Japan Festival of new Japanese work. The Bluebird is Yanaihara’s first play and the first time in years that Safer has worked on a script rather than a devised work. It’s partly inspired by a 1980 Japanese anime series, is set (possibly) in a psychiatric institution, and revolves around “scientific conundrums, the rescue of endangered species and the search for one’s personal blue bird.”

Before entering the studio for my first day of rehearsals (they have already been working for one week), I meet Safer at a nearby coffee shop. He is a wonderful mass of contradictions. His tight black jeans, chains and tattoos belie a fiercely intelligent and passionate graduate of New York University’s Tisch School—where he is now also a sessional teacher. Over a typical New York ‘bowl’ of coffee, we talk ideas and theatrical obsessions. We concur on our love of Tim Etchells, DV8, Wiliam Forsythe, and David Lynch. He is a big fan of nightclub cabaret where he used to perform as a go-go dancer. He also appeared in shows with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and his group Blacklips. Safer’s work is very influenced by punk/drag/cabaret/night club genres.

His mission for Witness Relocation is to “combine dance and theatre with the energy of a rock show—to explode contemporary culture into intensely physical, outrageous, poetic, and sometimes brutal performance.” He tells me that all his work is about violence and the end of the world. I ask him how he came up with the company’s name. The answer: when someone asked him where he recruited people willing to do ‘such things’ on stage he jokingly replied that they were part of the government witness relocation program—and it struck him that this was the perfect name for his new company.

Before entering the studio, Safer warns me he thinks that most of the work he does can be on the edge of being incredibly awful. Inside, the 10 performers are warming up—preparing for battle stations. The spirit of the rehearsals is playful, yet incredibly focused. They start with a barrage of dirty jokes. The rivalry has begun as they verbally spar with each other.

They are called to arms—soldiers on the front line of contemporary performance—and begin with a ‘dance’ choreographed out of their initial response to the script. It is fast paced, humorous and refreshingly original—the search for the ‘bluebird’ of the title. Safer asks his performers to give him a shell of a choreography that he can then “fuck” with. He doesn’t go for perfection. Although the choreography is strict, he is more interested in the diversity of the individual characteristics of the performers—their personality quirks, performance styles and body types. And these particular performers are variously small, thick set, young and old, traditional dancers and straight actors.

Safer’s directing style is wild and discordant yet still exacting and precise. His motto is “faster, louder, funnier” and the word “uncomfortable” is often heard in rehearsal. He gauges the workability of a piece by his own ‘boredom’ tolerance. He says: “If I get bored, I change things. If I am bored then the audience is bored.” And change happens swiftly as a result. He pushes his performers to the extremes, challenging limits and playing with what he can get away with. In one Witness Relocation show, Vicious Dogs on Premises, he randomly changes, nightly, the order of scenes as well as the performers’ roles.

And the performers never flinch. There is an unmitigated ‘yes’ attitude in the rehearsal as the performers up the ante by challenging and daring each other. The ultimate winning moment in my weeks with them was a spontaneous feigned act of cunnilingus—creating a pause of disbelief, then fits of laughter.

Rehearsals continue with regular script editing (at least one third of the text is cut), music (which plays a central role) and vocal and physical play. Much like a film director, Safer works on random parts of the script, eventually weaving them together. He creates ‘movie swipe’ style transitions—four performers crossing the space, perhaps looking for the lost bluebird species—to magically reveal the next scene. Shells of scenes are built with gestural choreography and heightened language. The tragic last scene, where the inmates all realise the futility of their existence, emerges as Safer clashes epic Michael Nyman music with the text—forcing the performers to rise to the challenge.

The deadline looms. How does it all fit together? I leave Witness Relocation on the last day before the New Year break and before the first performance. Back home I wonder how I can continue this relationship with a company whose extreme performance style resonates within my own core. The season starts and they play to full houses. I ask Safer about the response to this wild piece. He tells me that someone said they thought it was so funny but then suddenly they realised how sad it was. He‘s happy with that, and with another response (and his favourite): “That was amazing and a total mind fuck”.


www.witnessrelocation.org

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 26

© Deborah Lieser-Moore; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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