Review: Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company in Just add water? at Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Performance: 1-6 May 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 5 May 2009

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company 'Just Add Water' Dancer: Avatara Ayuso. Photo: JP Masclet. 1-6 May, Linbury Studio

Performance: 1 May

Culinary references are often used as easy metaphors for dance and so it is perhaps overdue to have a dance performance that is all about food. Although, it’s really the international language of food as a means of crossing cultural and personal boundaries that Jeyasingh and her talented group of dancers are tackling here. If we didn’t guess that for ourselves from the clues she gives in the choreography and its accompanying texts (cleverly written by Rani Moorthy), then there is a charming little article in the programme, taken from The Settler’s Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, to explain how her native ability to make ‘rotis and Zanzibari prawns’ brought her love with ‘a blue-eyed Englishman’.

This hour-long performance is almost exactly divided into two without the need of an interval. The first 30 minutes is given over to a witty and inventive series of dances with monologues by the multi-cultural group of six performers, each one dancing whilst running through the attributes and ingredients of their fave dish; thus we had paella, pumpkin pie, mint chutney and sweet pumpkin curry inter-mixed with ballet, bharata natyam and contemporary, all spoken in a mixture of tongues. It began with a babble of languages all spoken at once and there were frequent episodes of accelerating tensions (perhaps like the boiling of a pot) whilst one female dancer struggled to be heard.

Suddenly at almost precisely the half-hour mark, a silent switch was thrown and all the narrative stopped, allowing Orlando Gough’s interesting mix of rhythmn and foodie sounds to take control. The sometimes mouth-watering noises of sizzling food and boiling water were reflected by kitchen imagery on the screen and in the percolating, serpentine movement of the dancers, now six ingredients acting in harmony with one another. Whether it was promoting American Pie or an Indian condiment, suddenly all the tensions of the earlier work were subsumed into a uniform recipe with a singular aim.

The idea for Just add water? was great – simple and yet innovative – and the contributions of the various artistic collaborators each enhanced the overall intent; the choreography was varied and interesting especially in the way classic dance styles were seamlessly mixed and it was excellently performed. The work gets an extra brownie point because I cooked Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s recipe for Zanzibari Prawns as Bank Holiday lunch for my family. It was great, they loved it, but I perhaps didn’t get everything exactly right (I may have overdone the prawns and lime and not put in enough ginger or garlic) and that’s exactly how I feel about this performance. Something – and I think it is the balance and timing of the ingredients in the second half – didn’t quite gel.

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