Witness Relocation in ‘Vicious Dogs on Premises’

Being tortured in love is a dog’s life. Ask Witness Relocation, the company whom Performing Arts Journal dubbed “a dance-theater anarchist’s utopia.” Yet cruelty and torture are often the product of conditioning and weird choices, if you look at it from a scientist’s point of view. There are lessons to be learned by people looking at dogs, and also by looking at people from the dog’s point of view. That’s why Artistic Director Dan Safer uses the metaphor of trained dogs and concepts of Behavioral Choice Theory to investigate people’s weird shifts between cruelty and love in his newest play/physical theater piece, “Vicious Dogs on Premisis.” The work will premiere May 29 to June 14 at Ontological Theater, produced in association with the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator.

It’s the company’s second show based on animal metaphors. Last season at La MaMa, the troupe unveiled “Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment,” a dance-theater work about overpopulation in rodents. The New Yorker (Hilton Als) hailed the company as a “magnificent act” with influences of Pina Bausch, Richard Foreman, and the Wooster Group. The production was lauded for its “originality…youth, joy, vulgarity, and an ironic distance from the media saturated world that inspired the show.”

Witness Relocation in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment, choreographed by Dan Safer.
Witness Relocation in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment, choreographed by Dan Safer, La MaMa E.T.C. October 26, 2006. Photos by Jonathan Slaff.

Witness Relocation’s work normally blurs and ignores the lines between dance and theater, and includes aspects of installation art, live video, task-based performance, timed activities, competitions and improvisation of all sorts (movement, dramatic, and philosophical). This work includes a literary component: a play commissioned by Witness Relocation from award winning Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu. Prior to its premiere May 29 to June 14 at the Ontological, the work will be workshopped May 1 to 3 in the Fuse Box Festival in Austin, Texas. Following its debut at the Ontological, the production will tour to festivals in Romania.

The piece will be acted and danced by performers in dressy clothes, sometimes wearing dog masks. Its style will include the knock-down, drag-out physicality the troupe is known for. Portions will seem like a C.M. Coolidge painting or the novel “Animal Farm,” sprinkled with acrobatics, slam dancing and full-on dance numbers. The emphasis is not on the political but the personal, as if the ensemble is asking, “how could this happen to me?” Safer admits that the play touches partially on our contemporary national obsession with torture and partially on more day to day experiences. He says, “The torture part is about normal people in extreme circumstances. All my shows are. Would I be capable of doing this to other people? What would make me?” He adds, “Some criminologists say you learn patterns where violence is the preferred choice.” Despite the dark nature of the material, he promises a happy ending.

The piece was initially inspired by the concept of Choice Overload in sociology theory, which Safer first discovered in a Chuck Klosterman book and later became a filter for all his thinking. Behaviorists now know that when confronted with a plethora of choices, people find making a decision nearly impossible. It even becomes a cause of anxiety. Sometimes this anxiety can lead to extreme behavior. “Vicious Dogs on Premisis” deals explicitly with the nature of violence, particularly as it is an interaction between learned behavior versus personal choices. Safer drew upon the writings of two behavioral theorists: Barry Schwartz, a theorist of Choice Theory who is a professor at Swarthmore, and Sheena S. Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School. He also drew on insights that were raised last summer over dogfights staged by quarterback Michael Vick.

Vicious Dogs on Premises, Heather Christian, Mike Mikis, Laura Berlin Stinger, Sean Donovan.
VICIOUS DOGS ON PREMISIS- L-R: Heather Christian, Mike Mikis, Laura Berlin Stinger, Sean Donovan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

A total of 66 scarred fighting dogs were found in Michael Vick’s home last summer and whisked off to benign, caring environments after they were rescued. Since they were trained to fight, these dogs can never be socialized to the point where they will make acceptable pets. This idea caused Safer to muse on how much people, too, can heal after they are tortured in their own lives. So “Vicious Dogs on Premises” sets its dog-people in a corresponding “healing” environment of 50’s nostalgia, in which humans might live after they are tortured. Imagine dogs in shirtwaist dresses and cardigans. The characters speak about torture and cruelty with the detachment of another species. Still, they can’t escape their own conditioning, so they alternately love and torture each other. Their detachment is a source of extreme humor in the piece, which laughs at torture’s absurdity and its mixture of the outlandish with the horrifying. For example, there is a scene in which the characters interrupt torture to argue about Speed Dating.

The piece enacts Choice Overload by having five performers follow five separate lists of instructions, tasks, and options that fit together in various ways. The characters exchange roles and choices according to a matrix. Which set of instructions each performer follows each night is randomly selected, so the actual presentation can happen in 120 possible configurations. Every round of tasks happens for a specific duration (ranging from 60 to 30 seconds) and can involve solo, duet, or group action. The scripted play by Saviana Stanescu will be woven through the evening and serve as a basis for other “problem solving experiences.” Describing the free-form nature of the show, Safer writes, “It may include Butoh dancing, imaginary Alpine folk dancing or gestures an angry lawyer makes in court. It could include talk about threatening things said to children or efficient fuel sources. Somebody might get Staple-gunned in the face. You might see people decide between balancing or falling down repeatedly. Some of the show is different every time.”

The performers/co-creators are Heather Christian, Sean Donovan, Laura Berlin Stinger, Mike Mikis and Dan Safer. Costumes are by Pandora Andrea Gastelum. Sound is by Ryan Maeker. Lights and set are by Jay Ryan. Live video is by Kaz Phillips.


Witness Relocation was formed in 2000. The company has performed at The Danspace Project/St. Mark’s Church, The Ohio Theater/Soho Think Tank (in the Koltes NY Festival and the award winning Ice Factory Festival), The Revolutions International Theater Festival (NM), Dixon Place, New York University, and Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok. Past projects between members of Witness Relocation include productions at Dance Theater Workshop, the Currican Theater, and Baltimore Theater Project.

From 2004-06, Witness Relocation engaged in an ongoing collaboration and residency with the renowned Patravadi Theatre of Bangkok, Thailand. From a rigorous exchange of methodologies, ideas and practices came a radical shift in direction for Safer’s troupe. The collision and collusion of different artistic as well as cultural perspectives yielded a unique interdisciplinary performance style that now combines Eastern and Western techniques; dance, theater and installation art.

Mike Mikos, Heather Christian, Orion Taraban, Laura Berlin Stinger in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment.
ROUGH AND TUMBLE PHYSICALITY- Mike Mikos, Heather Christian, Orion Taraban, Laura Berlin Stinger in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment.

Last season, the company performed “Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment” (2006) at La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theaster), NYC. It was an original dance/theater based in part on the 1960’s Scientific American article “Population Density & Social Pathology” by John Calhoun, concerning overpopulation in rats; “Survivor”-style competition reality TV shows; and drinking games. The work was controversial and polarizing, but it won three Innovative Theater Awards and gathered its share of powerfully affirming reviews.

Kelina Gotman wrote in Performing Arts Journal, “Witness Relocation’s Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment was like going to your first punk rock concert in the 1980s. It was raw, it was racy. If it was hard to follow at times, it was too lively for that to matter. The company has been compared to Pina Bausch, Richard Foreman, and the Wooster Group, but Witness Relocation’s mobilization of the element of uncertainty, the sheer physical vitality of the performers, and the mixture of genres puts them more in line with the Andrei Serban, Jan Fabre, Frank Castorf, and David Bowie.”

Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker, “Ellen Stewart of La MaMa has helped launch the careers of Sam Shepard, Tom O’Horgan, Andrei Serban, and Candy Darling. It is a pleasure to add a new company – Witness Relocation – to Stewart’s roll call of magnificent acts. The company, under the supervision of the director and choreographer Dan Safer, consists of about a dozen actor-dancers, who also contribute to the creation of each piece. Witness Relocation’s current show is an hour-long work bursting with ideas, both visual and aural… While influences are clear – the genre-mixing works of Pina Bausch, Richard Foreman, and the Wooster Group are definitely in evidence – there is plenty of originality here, too, as well as youth, joy, vulgarity, and an ironic distance from the media saturated world that inspired the show.”

Dan Safer dances with Heather Christian in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment.
Dan Safer dances with Heather Christian in Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment.

Dan Safer (director, choreographer) originally hails from the wild suburbs of New Jersey, and has helmed every Witness Relocation show. His work has been presented at La MaMa, Dance Theater Workshop (four consecutive seasons), Patravadi Theatre (Bangkok), Theater Krudttonden (Denmark), the 2007 CUNY Prelude Festival, Dixon Place and Danspace Project. He has choreographed operas, rock videos and fashion shows and has written a seven episode serial play with Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire. He performed with Ridge Theater, Jane Comfort, John Moran, Mabou Mines, the Blacklips Performance Cult, Hong Kong choreographer Dick Wong and others. He founded and directed the Bangkok Performance Boot Camp. Safer is faculty at NYU and teaches workshops across the US and Internationally. He received a 2007-9 Six Points Fellowship (Performance) from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and won two NY Innovative Theater Awards last year. He used to be a go-go dancer and once choreographed the Queen of Thailand’s Birthday Party.

Saviana Stanescu (playwright) has published books of poetry and drama including: “The Inflatable Apocalypse,” “Diary of a Clone” (poems), “Black Milk” (four plays) and “Final Countdown” (a play, Antoine Vitez Center Award, Paris). Her artistic work has been shown in the U.S., U.K., France, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania. Her recent New York productions include “Yokastas” (directed by Richard Schechner) and “Waxing West,” both at La MaMa; “Lenin’s Shoe” at The Lark Theatre, “Suspendidaat” at Ontological Theatre and “Aurolac Blues” at Here Arts Center (published in Plays and Playwrights 2006). Stanescu holds an MA in Performance Studies (2001-2002 Fulbright fellow) and an MFA in Dramatic Writing (John Golden Award in Playwriting) from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is currently a TCG fellow with The Lark, playwright-in-residence of East Coast Artists, a member of Women’s Project Lab and adjunct faculty at Tischs’ Drama Department.

Performances are May 29 to June 14, 2008 at Ontological Theater, located in St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue), Manhattan. The event is produced in association with Ontological-Hysteric Incubator. Performance dates are May 29, 30, 31 and June 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, and 14. All shows are at 8:00 PM; there are additional 10:00 PM performances June 13 and 14. Tickets are $17 and $12 for students. Ticketing is available online at http://ontological.com and by phone through Theatermania, 212-352-3101.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.