Hetain Patel doesn’t necessarily go for the obvious route. In Be Like Water he deals with issues like identity and language, who you are, how people expect you to be or your accent to sound, and who you would like to be in your imagination. And his method is to start out by speaking in Chinese. His words are translated into English by the Taiwanese dancer, Yuyu Rau, or appear in subtitles. Why Chinese ? Well, why not. He has spent time in a residency in China, but doesn’t speak the language: he has had to learn the text by heart.
Be Like Water is a tricky work to categorise: it includes many different elements – text, music, projections, dance, without any of these dominating. In it we learn a lot about Hetain and his Dad, growing up in Bolton, wanting as a kid to be like Bruce Lee and finally getting to practice some of those sword-fighting moves as an adult. It’s a very successful work that manages to combine the oblique with the direct and engaging, and is both funny and sharply observed. At 50 minutes it is succinct but manages to pack plenty of material in. It’s the sort of work that would find a natural home at Festival time in Edinburgh, always hospitable to the difficult to classify.
The presentation is stark and unfussy, seemingly down to earth, and yet the work is full of artifice. Nothing is concealed. On one side of the stage is the musician Ling Peng who plays a variety of Chinese classical instruments. On the other is the resident techie with the laptop, who deals with the cameras and projectors. Most works involving multimedia seek to look slick and conceal how the effects are produced. Here the cast get on with the business of moving the cameras themselves, turn projectors on and off and shift the couple of boxes that serve as scenery. The presentation appears unaffected and yet of course that itself is carefully planned – just like the dry aside by Hetain, telling us that the two screens on which images are projected were made by the Dad of one of the cast.
Hetain Patel’s reflections of wanting to be like Bruce Lee when he was a kid are set against Yuyu Rau’s childhood memories of wanting to go to ballet lessons (she borrows his long lanky body to stand in for the barre at this point) before she discovered contemporary dance. The work is credited as text, choreography and performance, Hetain Patel with Yuyu Rau. Her ebullience is a good contrast to his rather cool and laconic manner.
He manages a wide variety of accents – cod Indian, a Bruce Lee imitation, the pure vowels of his native Bolton, and ends up speaking a kind of received pronunciation to vocalise the thoughts of the dancer. The two performers are versions of each other, and at one point are conjoined so that her hands illustrate his conversation about why he sounds feminine to Chinese speakers. Both ultimately repeat versions of the same kung fu-style moves with a giant ruler standing in for a sword. She gets the final word, or rather the final dance, with which the work concludes. The use of projections, both previously prepared (Hetain’s dad taking us round the car workshop where he works) and live, are clever and never overlong. There’s a particularly striking effect when his sword / ruler sweeps back and forth through a bar of light and picks out projected text from thin air – simple but impressive.
Be Like Water is planned to return to London in Rich Mix next February.