Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006


Stuck in the rat race, dancers hash it out on stage

Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment
Choreographed by Dan Safer
At LaMama E.T.C. Annex Theater through November 12
74 East Fourth Street
(212-475-7710; www.lamama.org

Photo by Jonathan Slaff
Feeding frenzy: In “Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment,” choreographer Dan Safer dresses up the old cliché of the rat race on stage.

By Sara G. Levin

Draped in an eerie humor and circus-like atmosphere, “Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment,” dresses up the old cliché of the rat race and reinterprets it within the context of a scientific experiment. The show, choreographed by Dan Safer, includes a recording from a real 1962 documentary about overpopulation in rats. Overcrowding seems to have a very negative effect on rodent psyches, says the voiceover, and as Safer tries to show, it impacts humans, too.

The performance begins with the disclaimer, “This show might be about the end of the world,” and ends with a hilarious contest reminiscent of the TV show “Survivor.” Luckily, Safer has an acute eye for sets, costumes, and transitions that give the work’s familiar theme an entertaining look and feel.

As audience members enter the theater, all eight players — I say players because there is much more miming and acting than dancing — lie languidly on blue towels in horrendously big white underwear and garters reminiscent of days of yore. They luxuriously flip through magazines, basking in the sun of a square track of lights hung overhead. Boxed in over a layer of fake floor tiles, and a wire cord that makes the flat stage look somewhat like a boxing ring, everyone looks exaggeratedly bored. And after two minutes, so was I.

But then the lights shut off and a rumble emerges from behind the audience. One man stands with his white-painted face and red-rimmed eyes, to get a better look, as the floor begins to shake. This is the kind of effect Safer is best at — changing from one mood to another in the blink of an eye, guided by the set, lights, and sounds more than the impetus of his actors. The experiment begins.

Everyone furiously pulls on clothes, colorful tutus, ruffled shirts, as if dressing for a state fair. Each shirt has a number on the back. As the soundtrack races through rock-n-roll, Thai techno, country music, and samba, the crew is swallowed up by something beyond their reach. A mysterious wire lowers a bucket with food and beer.

Then the 1960s voiceover of a scholarly-sounding gentleman makes observations about how rats act if too many are plunked in to live within the same cage: They destroy each other. So Safer’s performers follow suit. A woman beats her baby with a baseball bat; a man almost kills another man because he spills beer on the floor. All this occurs in a schizophrenic melee of moods and music that turn love into hate and trust into mistrust at the drop of a hat. Thus concludes “Part One.”

“Part Two” switches to the survival contest. Although there is absolutely no dancing in this half — compared to the minor miming and partner-dancing segments of part one — the set-up is pretty funny. In order to avoid elimination, each person must complete ridiculous tasks dictated by a mysterious voice, like “find a red ping-pong ball among thousands of white ones, in a state of total panic and terror,” or get in a garbage bag and make it to the finish line “in a state of total and utter lust.”

Sadly, the point Safer seems to be making — that overcrowding causes us to behave as badly as territorial rats — isn’t convincing. Humans seem perfectly capable of finding reasons to hate, kill and compete with each other on their own. It’s his surreal sound effects, costumes and make-up that give a longer-lasting impression of eerie disquiet than the actual subject.

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