Art may not be our mother-tongue, but the language of food is spoken in every language. Food brings people together. It is a sacred and ancient language that evokes the history, flavors and aromas of a culture. Last weekend, Radhouane El Meddeb, the Tunisian-born choreographer,dancer and cook, performed “I Dance & I Feed You” at The Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse, a Knight Arts grantee. “I Dance & I Feed You” combined two of Meddeb’s favorite things: cooking and dancing. It also included my two favorite pastimes: watching and eating.
As I entered The Lightbox turned communal gathering space, Meddeb’s make-shift kitchen appeared. The four (2 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet) yellow tables reflected brilliantly against the black backdrop as my eyes focused on the yummy grub from Whole Foods on top of those tables: carrots, onions, zucchini, tons of spinach, lamb, couscous, spices, olive oil and other culinary treasures. The audience, with their tongues wagging, sat around the stage — on the floor, on top of fluffy pillows and on softly cushioned chairs — beneath an array of quirky light fixtures and chandeliers. It was a comfy-cozy environment conceived to bring people together in a metaphorical group hug.
Meddeb wore a cinnamon-spiced color linen shirt and pale orange linen pants. He began the performance sitting across from the makeshift kitchen. He sat upon a single yellow table from where he controlled the soundtrack of traditional North Africa/Middle Eastern inspired music from his iPod. He turned the music on, sat and previewed the audience, like we were a curiosity. It was curious watching a man dance and cook barefoot with such zealous pride and a slightly self-conscious attitude as he teased all of our senses.
As Meddeb began to move, the audience started to relax and sync with his rhythm. The dance lasted as long as it took for the meal to finish cooking. While the meal was simmering on an electric stove, Meddeb moved in rapturous and rhythmic phrases that were often ritualistic and emotive. When he repeatedly beat his belly with both hands after he ate his plate first, this movement communicated something like, “thank you for that which we are about to eat” to the universe.
One important (and unique) element of Meddeb’s performance is that he introduced the sense of smell to a theatrical context—a sense that is often left out in staged performances. When Meddeb ran around the stage tossing clouds of sweet cinnamon into the air, I felt at home, connected to his culinary cultural history and to my own experiences with cooking.
Meddeb has a complex, unassuming and, at times, sassy personality. He subtly taunted and teased us with his gestures throughout the performance. He tossed cloves, plastic forks and paper plates at us without aggression. You want a taste of this meal, he’d communicate with the quick blink of his eyes. Then he would turn and stomp off leaving us wanting a taste. At one point, Meddeb gave me a plate of food and then took it away before I had a chance to take a bite. Eventually, I got it back.
Calling Meddeb’s performance dinner theater would be an insult. “I Dance & I Feed You” is an act of community building — a communal and multicultural theater performance that uses all the senses to communicate his profound love for dancing and cooking. Most importantly, it subtly spoke of the power and intention of what it means to break bread with another person. Even if we don’t speak the same mother-tongue, we are always connected through the senses.
Let’s eat, Meddeb gestured, and as one we leapt to our hands and knees and ate.