Review: Hetain Patel - American Boy - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 20 & 21 May 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Tuesday 27 May 2014

Hetain Patel 'American Boy' Photo: Bettina Strenske

Anyone with any sort of engagement in mainstream popular culture is likely to have the experience of feeling inundated even constructed, in language, mannerism and behaviour by the all-pervasive global machine of American media exports. In addition to being a lot of fun, Hetain Patel’s American Boy, his first solo performance which premiered last week (Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells), could be seen as a diagnostic tool by which to measure just how saturated one is in the pop mythology of Superheroes and Transformers, teenage goofball comedies and macho action blockbusters that are churned out by the entertainment industry in the States.

Patel presents us with a canon of repetitions of audio clips – interestingly (and thankfully) never video clips despite the presence of several glowing screens – and spot-on (or gleefully awkward) physical and vocal impersonations drawn shamelessly from the past few decades of American cinematic and televisual iconography. Some bits from conceptual artist Bruce Nauman were thrown in to keep it sufficiently artsy. Patel morphed from John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Royale with cheese’ dialogue from Pulp Fiction, to monologues from the X-Men and Beverly Hills Cop, to name just a few.

It was striking how little text or just a few struck poses or in-character moves could immediately invoke the film or show he was parroting, a phenomenon which I took to be more a function of the pervasiveness of the content and the deftness and affectionate familiarity Patel brought to his impressions, than of my own cultural literacy. In one brilliant moment Patel futzed with a camera at the side of the stage, then crouched down and crawled across the floor, appearing in a monitor via the doctored camera angle, as though he was crawling up the side of a building; though not in costume he was instantly Spider-Man, to the joyful hoots of the crowd.

Often the original audio tracks of the selected scenes were played and then impersonated by Patel or vice versa, then repeated again, and again, the repetitions creating a dialogue with each other, building up layers of meaning, developing a loose but coherent mosaic of narrative. This was what I would call dramaturgical choreography and there is no question that Patel’s work fits squarely within the expanded field of contemporary dance. Out of virtually nothing but these ‘awesome-dude’ bits of recycled pop paraphernalia Patel and his collaborators, including not one but two dramaturgs – Eva Martinez (also Patel’s wife) and Michael Pinchbeck and Associate Choreographer Lorena Randi, fashion a surprisingly touching and intelligent personal story.

It’s the story of a young man trying to find himself ‘in a world’ (as he intones in the beginning, mimicking the ubiquitous ominous narrator of so many movie trailers) in which it is barely possible to find an image you can relate to, let alone to surface as a unique individual, amidst the sea of whitewashed Hollywood detritus flying at us all from all directions. This project of identification and identity formation, faced most perplexingly by developing adolescents, is complicated even more if one is a member of an ethnic minority. The point is made with great tenderness when Patel channels YouTube star Vinnie Banana AKA Spidey-Skater, telling his anonymous audience of thousands that his new specially altered Spider-Man suit is more ‘real’ than his Superman costume, partly because it masks his Mexican face.

So although this action-packed world of pithy one-liners and cartoonish characters is one that Patel clearly and deeply loves, in the ironically titled American Boy (Patel is from Bolton), he also pointedly critiques it. You could say that in this work Patel dis-identifies with his beloved references and the machinery that mass produces and foists them upon the rest of the world. He revels in the stuff – his impersonations are obviously the work of years of banter with his mates – inhabiting with pleasure this landscape which he confesses in the programme notes has been partially responsible for making him who he is. But he also works against it, illustrating implicitly the inherent violence in these media products, and subverting them through repetition and a structure that is nothing less than expertly choreographic.

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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