Dan Safer is devoted to exploring the possibilities of human movement. As a dancer, choreographer, and educator, he creates visceral, full-impact shows that lean more in the direction of slam dancing at a punk club than ballet in a recital hall. After nearly 20 years in the Department of Drama at NYU, he recently started in a new role as a faculty member at MIT.
Dancing in suits has been a part of Dan’s life for as long as he can remember. He says,
“When I was a little kid, I used to put on a suit and thrash around on the floor while playing a BeeGees Greatest Hits record as a “show” for my parents and their friends to watch whenever we had company, and apparently I have barely changed.”
Nowadays his work uses the physicality of a rock show (or possibly the BeeGees) to explore contemporary culture. In 2000, Dan formed Witness Relocation, a dance/theater ensemble on the cutting edge of New York City’s progressive theater scene. The company has performed around the world, winning critical claim in addition to three New York Innovative Theater Awards.
Dan discovered Ministry of Supply when he walked past our New York City store last year. He was drawn in by the astronaut in the window and the promise of stretchy suits. Since then, he’s been putting Ministry of Supply suits to extreme tests:
“The fact that we can do a full impact dance piece, rolling on the floor, flipping over each other's shoulders, slamming into the ground, sweating buckets and WE DON’T RUIN THE SUITS? And can throw them in the washing machine? Come on, that’s incredible.”
His latest show, “Surveys the Prairie of Your Room,” features Ministry of Supply suits and dress shirts. We got together with Dan to learn more about how he thinks about movement, performance, and dancing in suits.
How would you describe yourself in 10 words or less?
Hey, it’s that bald dancer guy with all the tattoos!
What keeps you up at night?
I spend a lot of time thinking about how our perception of reality is incredibly flawed and we have no idea what is actually going on. That keeps me up.
What does it means to lead a dance/theater company?
The company started around 20 years ago. The name was a joke about where I found people who were willing and able to do the stuff we do onstage - that they were from the Witness Relocation Program. I’ve always leaned towards dance and performance that feels more like a rock show, so the company feels more like a punk band than like a traditional dance company. I’m the leader in that the shows are my ideas and I’m the director / choreographer / producer. But our work is very ensemble- and group-based, and everyone contributes a lot. It’s not just me telling people what to do, far from it.
What's the process for putting a show together?
With this new piece, we’ve been rehearsing in one to three week periods over close to two years, developing the material, showing it in progress, and going back into rehearsal. We worked to a variety of music, changing it up some, before we got the original score, so it wasn’t the process a lot of people imagine where you hear a song and make up moves to go to it. I’m much more interested in a narrative and emotional arc, and generating movement that is also behavior and evokes situations, and seeing how by blowing that out and intensifying it, it can turn into dance.
Where do you see the intersection of technology and dance?
I’m basically the only Dance person on faculty [at MIT], and it’s only my first year, so I’m still seeing what’ possible. The students are amazing and brilliant. It’s really cool to teach someone how to flip over a shoulder and they’re like “oh yeah, I get this, that’s the fulcrum point, etc” and I’m like “oh yeah, you’re a mechanical engineer, you get this stuff.”
How do you balance everything?
I do a lot of yoga and pilates in order to keep my brain and body functional. I try to spend a lot of time with animals.
What have you discovered that has surprised you?
Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor and her work directly led to such things as GPS and Bluetooth.
Who are your influences/role models?
David Bowie, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jackass, East Village NYC nightclub/ punk acts from the 80s and 90s, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, John Waters, Grace Jones, Francis Bacon, old MGM musicals, Alexander McQueen, Egon Schiele.
What’s your favorite place?
I have an old farm house in the Catskill Mountains I get to go to and I’m happiest when I’m there.
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
If alive, then Haruki Murakami. If not, then Bowie.
See “Surveys the Prairie of Your Room” at MIT
Friday, February 22 and Saturday, February 23 at 8:00 p.m
Theater at W97 345 Vassar St, Cambridge, MA 02139