Review: Protein Dance - May Contain Food - The Place

Performance: 20 April - 7 May 2016
Reviewed by Sarah Kent - Monday 25 April 2016

Protein Dance - 'May Contain Food'. Photo: Chris Nash.

Performance reviewed: 20 April

Composer Orlando Gough is a foodie; he has written a recipe book, which starts with a dessert he learned to make when he was five and follows an autobiographical path, the recipes getting more sophisticated as his tastes mature and more international as he discovers foreign dishes.

A few years ago, he and Luca Silvestrini, director of Protein Dance, were invited to collaborate on a project for the Brighton Festival. It never materialised, but the desire to work together remained strong, so when Silvestrini suggested creating a piece based on the theme of food, Gough jumped at the idea. “I’ve been wanting to do a piece about food for a very long time,” he says, “so May Contain Food has been a dream project for me.”

Eight performers – four dancers and four singers – function as a team moving and singing together. “We allowed quite a lot time to find where and how the two art forms could meet and inspire each other”, explains Silvestrini. “I especially like the lack of hierarchy,” adds Gough. “We have singers who can move and dancers who can sing; they have equal status and there’s no band. It’s risky, because it could become a melée of people who are not able to do what they are asked to; but dancers Sonya (Cullingford) and Saara (Hurme) in particular are pure magic, because they can really sing and Sonya can also whistle, which is pure gold!”

A photo in Gough’s cook book shows him preparing a meal surrounded by family and friends relaxing in a spacious kitchen – the perfect setting for an informal dinner that brings people together. But many of us have a difficult relationship with food; far from being associated with happy family gatherings, it is fraught with anxiety and contradiction. We feel guilty at having plenty while others starve, and love stuffing our faces, yet long to be slim. We adore meat while hating butchery, and care about animal welfare while demanding cheap cuts. And food is a multi-million pound industry; so how to tackle such a complex and contentious issue?

Silvestrini’s touring piece Border Tales examines life in multi-cultural Britain and, by its very nature, is political. But while brushing up against social and psychological issues, May Contain Food can’t quite decide whether to remain light-hearted or be deadly serious. The Place’s Robin Howard theatre has been transformed into a restaurant. The seats have gone to make way for tables draped in furs, feathers, fake grass and plastic cloths printed with lustrous fruit and veg. The Maitre d’ (Martin George) ushers us to tables decorated with still lives featuring skulls, animal horns, pasta sculptures, nibbles or fruit and veg designed by Yann Seabra.

Dressed as waiters, the performers sing as they hand out menus and make us welcome. “Are you happy with the table? Are you happy with the menu? Everything is fresh; 16 courses, excellent value; all our fish is responsibly sourced; we care about our customers; starters to table four.” Meanwhile, dreaming of succulent pork and guinea fowl, singer Donna Lennard leaves behind a smear of blood as she slides across an expanse of white tiles.

Our first dish is ‘Rhapsody in Red: A cherry tomato be-bop cadenza just bursting to be released from its smooth red album jacket. Excellent with belly of pork.’ New age blather and sales pitch hyperbole are blended into stream of consciousness banter. “Close your eyes; inhale exhale… rub the tomato against your lips and up your face; smell it, rest it in your eye socket. Give it a kiss; give it a name. Bite on three and chew 21 times. Know that its OK to swallow, saying ‘I’m a good person who deserves my place on the planet’.”

Ingredients are chopped and aphorisms chanted: “never interfere with a setting jelly; salt is the devil; always caramelise your apples.” We are served rice balls followed later by sticky ginger pudding; both are cold and dull. A theme begins to emerge; the promise of delicious food frequently leads to disappointment. The raspberries have been grown in a sterile environment; the apple has no volatility; the lemon is waxed: “the bastard love child of insecticides and corporate greed”; and the cucumber is “a condom-wrapped piece of shit”.

While the various topics are addressed in song, the dancing seems somewhat tangential. As they spin, lift, grapple and taunt one another, the dancers remind me of the wrestling matches my brother and I indulged in as children. Our goal was to lick one another; theirs is to grab discarded food and shove chunks into each other’s mouths, ears and hair.

Dramatic interactions take place round a spotlit table with a levitating white cloth, but the plot lines remain obscure. Lennard chases people around with a laden spoon trying to coax them into swallowing a tasty morsel, before cornering audience members and cramming reluctant mouths full of unwanted food.

Among all the chaos, the most satisfying moments come when the performers join together to create a cacophony of farmyard sounds – mooing, clucking, bleating and grunting – and to sing. Most memorable is an elegiac but comical hymn to all those involved in the production of the food on our plates – from mothers, to supermarket chains, lorry drivers, farmers, plants, seeds, compost, air and the ozone layer, EU subsidies, matter and anti-matter, the Higgs Boson, the Big Bang and, finally, God.

Crispy kale is the most delicious dish we are given: “Kale won’t give you a heart attack, you can’t get a stroke from an artichoke. Don’t eat that; eat this….” There may be a message served up there, but don’t expect conclusions or clarity. May Contain Food is more akin to a nourishing romp than a rant.

Continues at The Place until 7 May
Performances 7pm & 9pm (except Sun & Mon)

Photos: Chris Nash

Best known as an art critic, Sarah Kent began writing about dance for The Arts Desk in 2012, only stopping recently when she was invited to serve on the dance panel of the Olivier Awards. A keen dancer herself, she brings a fresh perspective to the role of commentator.

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