The NYU Abu Dhabi student production of M.D. (or the whale) summoned crowds of theatergoers to Manarat Al Saadiyat earlier this month. A collaboration between Witness Relocation, a New York City-based theater and dance company, and NYUAD students, M.D. (or the whale) wove together dance, wrestling, music, and video projection in a revolutionary exploration of daily life on Captain Ahab's ship in Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick.
Director and choreographer Dan Safer listed many inspirations for the production, such as the original novel, film adaptations (including the low-budget science fiction versions), research about whaling, and In the Heart of the Sea, a novel by Nathaniel Philbrick. More importantly, M.D. (or the whale) was a response to Melville's novel shaped by the cast members and creative team. Putting the acting aside to focus on moving and responding in a non-performative manner, the group took an experimental approach to discover what Moby-Dick meant to them.
"When rehearsals began, there was no script, no story, no framework to work with or work within," said cast member Salber Williams (NYUAD '17). "We began by creating sequences of movements that tied up with a list of phrases and slowly these movements began to evolve. The pieces we created told us what they wanted to be and through this stories were formed."
"What I loved about this process was that the objective wasn't to simply take Moby-Dick, stick a couple of actors, some lights, and some music on stage and show a three-hour-long epic, but rather ask ourselves: What does Moby-Dick mean for us? What do we find interesting? What scenes are fun? What ideas drive us crazy? What do we hate? What do we want to explore, here and now? The piece we performed is linked to a very specific group of people in a very specific time — what we did was unique to us," said cast member Attilio Rigotti, NYUAD Class of 2014.
"The students are an exciting, brave, dedicated group," Safer said. "They threw themselves into our work head first and challenged themselves. They were fun and passionate and did an awesome job."
Through an innovative blend of dance, song, and audiovisual media, M.D. (or the whale)recreated the daily routine of the sailors on Captain Ahab's ship, the Pequod, portraying a sense of monotony as well as a turbulence of human emotions ranging from longing to monomania. Creating space in the play for viewers to relate their own stories and imagination, the production had a message for every member in the audience.
"Using the routine life of a sailor on a whaling ship as a metaphor for our routine lives today was a way into the text of Moby-Dick that I hadn't thought of before. The whale [Melville] wrote to attack the [ship] could happen to any of us in our daily lives — a 'whale' could hit us and truly flip our lives upside down. It is what we do when that happens that proves to us who we are," said cast member Jordan Schulze, NYUAD Class of 2014.
Williams concluded, "It was all an experiment and no one knew how it would turn out, but the journey to the finished product was both an amazing and unforgettable experience."