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Jack Anderson

Rat Dancing

Laura Berlin Stinger (back to camera), Mike Mikos, Sean Donovan, Abby Browde, Orion Taraban, Heather Christian, Emmitt George. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

"Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment"
Witness Relocation
La MaMa Annex Theatre, 74A East Fourth Street, East Village
Oct. 26-Nov. 12, 2006
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., $20, discounts for students and seniors
Tickets: (212) 475-7710 or www.lamama.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Nov. 10, 2006

Life can be a rat race, people can act like rats, and Dan Safer makes such behavior intellectually provocative in "Dancing vs .The Rat Experiment (or: I Have to Believe That All Men Are Basically Good)," the dance-theater piece he directed and choreographed for Witness Relocation, a troupe that has recently returned from a two-year residency at the Patravadi Theater of Bangkok, Thailand.

Things start calmly in this hour-long production as nine performers in underwear stretch out on towels and flip through magazines, as if relaxing on a beach. But all is not as casual as it looks, for people change positions with measured precision, as if their motions were programmed by some outside force. And their rectangular space, which Jay Ryan designed, suggests a boxing ring or a pen.

Dan Safer, Heather Christian. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Tranquility is shattered by electronic roars, and a lighted panel announces, "This show might be about the end of the world." From time to time, a voiceover narration by Richard Armstrong describes a scientific experiment in which the rising population of rats in a confined rodent community leads to increased chaos. Safer's people are counterparts to those rats. Although they don fancy costumes by Pandora Andrea Gastelum that make them resemble characters in some modern interpretation of an elegant Beaumarchais or Marivaux comedy, any comic action that follows grows most unmannerly and inelegant.

Safer's frantic choreography to a taped collage from many musical sources has dancers pairing off, as if grappling in potentially lethal combats. When a bucket is periodically lowered into the pen, feeding frenzies ensue. Some dancers, with rodent snouts on their faces, occasionally gather soused around a table, play cards, fight over a chair, and act out a melodramatic soap opera.

The narration implies that overpopulation itself causes social violence, and there may be truth in that view. Conceivably, the on-stage violence that expresses it might have unusual impact if Safer could somehow progressively fill the space with increasing hordes of people or devise a way to narrow that space to suggest inexorable constriction. But Witness Relocation does not have crowds of extras on hand, and La MaMa's stage probably cannot shrink. Working with these particular bodies in this specific environment, Safer creates a believable pandemonium.

Orion Taraban, Emmitt George. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Whereas the voiceover stresses overpopulation, the choreography can be interpreted as a commentary on the manipulation of people by all social forces, be they forces of politics or the media. The show's second part depicts such manipulation with devilish cleverness.

The dancers, now in contemporary casual attire, become contestants in a game show in which, goaded by a host who treats them with simultaneous encouragement and contempt, they must perform such competitive stunts as eating while in a state of ecstasy, inflating balloons while looking panic-stricken, running enraged in a sack race, and guzzling beer with agony. The actions are humiliating, and the emotions the contestants are required to display demean honest feelings. Nevertheless, everyone obeys instructions unquestioningly. They might as well be rats in a laboratory maze. But they're human beings, and people are supposed to be smarter than rats.

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