Dancing and whaling onstage in AD

A sea captain looks off in the distance, recounting the tale of how he lost his leg to a giant whale, Moby Dick, while his crew stands rigidly around ...

Sep 28, 2013

A sea captain looks off in the distance, recounting the tale of how he lost his leg to a giant whale, Moby Dick, while his crew stands rigidly around him. Upstage, clips of mutant whales attacking ships loop in the background. Suddenly, the speech grows soft. A crew member begins simultaneously translating the captain’s story into Spanish. Music begins to play, and the sailors break out into a dizzyingly choreographed dance.
“We need to get them into Star Trek earlier,” said director and choreographer Dan Safer to his stage manager during tech rehearsal for the upcoming production, “M.D (or the whale).”
“Are we still doing the Sharp Eye for the Whale Guy scene?” asked someone wearing a headset from behind the tech desk.
“Nope, that scene was cut,” he replied.
“M.D,” which opens on Thursday, Oct. 3, has already sold out all of the tickets for its four shows, staged in Gallery 3 of Manarat Al Saadiyat. It is the first production in Abu Dhabi by Witness Relocation, presented by the NYU Abu Dhabi Theater program in collaboration with Theater Mitu. Started by Safer in 2000, the New York City-based company has previously produced shows in Thailand, Romania and France. Safer, who also teaches at NYU Tisch in New York, was invited by NYUAD to come and stage a performance with an all-student cast.
Safer has a technical background in dance and choreography, and he describes the work with Witness Relocation as a dance company that does theater. But adaptation is a main tenant of the company’s creative manifesto.
“We don’t try to force our show into the arena where we are performing, we try to make a show that’s conceived and created based on what’s happening around us,” said Safer.  “We’re going to create based on where we are and who we’re with,” Safer said, his tattooed arms gesturing out to the atrium of Manarat Al Saadiyat where we were talking.
Production coach for “M.D” and Witness Relocation company member Mike Mikos described how the piece developed from exercises with the actors to the testing of different scripts and scene stagings — experimentation with what works and what doesn’t.
“Performers are giving ideas, maybe 80 percent of which are totally wrong and even terrible, but [the] 20 percent of which that wind up being in the show [keep it] moving forward,” he said. “We wind up with a much richer, more varied product that can often reverse audience expectation a lot more adeptly.”
Despite the highly contextual nature of their theater method, Safer still made preparations before arriving in Abu Dhabi.
“We were warned that we might have a hard time finding stuff here so we brought a shark costume and some gold sequined pants,” he said. “I didn’t bring any fake limbs this time — I should have, because we still need a fake leg.”
“M.D” is loosely adapted from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” which tells the story of Ishmael, a man aboard a whaling ship. The ship’s captain, Ahab, takes the ship on an obsessive hunt to find and kill the sperm whale that crippled him.
The NYUAD literature department will be hosting intensive daily reading sessions starting Monday Sept. 30 in anticipation of the show’s opening night.
Mikos, who acted as the play’s dramaturg, said that Melville’s 599-page novel was impressive as an undertaking.
“It’s exciting to watch an artist stretching his boundaries, taking on the biggest thing he’s ever taken on,” he said. “It’s a messy, flawed, boring, awesome, exhilarating, heartbreaking masterpiece.”
In what appears to be typical of Witness Relocation’s work, “M.D” goes beyond Melville's novel and reaches into the canon of contemporary popular culture.
“We’ve also stolen stuff from ‘Moby Dick 2010’ in which Barry Bostwick plays an insane submarine captain hunting a mutant whale,” he said. “We were doing a scene from ‘Sex and the City 2’ but we cut it because it didn’t work.”
In a 2010 theater review, The New York Times wrote of Safer’s “abiding love of terrible source material.”
“I find that you can dig into that stuff and find something unexpected there,” Safer said.
Listing his biggest creative influences, Safer mentioned William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, “Star Trek,” “Jackass” and “the drag shows I used to do in the early ‘90s in the East Village.”
“That’s our mythology, our mythology is crappy sci-fi movie and sitcoms; that’s contemporary western culture,” Safer said.
In addition to whaling and popular culture references, those who attend “M.D” should expect wrestling scenes and what Safer described as huge dance numbers.
Sophomore Bhavna Menon, who is among the cast of “M.D,” said that this production was a new kind of theater at NYUAD.
“There’s elements of comedy, but underneath the comedy we’re aware that there’s a deeper message,” Menon said. “This is an integration of so many things, video, dance, song … It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”
Alistair Blacklock is editor-in-chief. Email him at 
gazelle logo