T. came into the room. I asked her ‘do know what this performance is about?’ she said ‘yes, you’re going to dance for me and tell me stories from your culture while I eat a sandwich’. ‘Um…no’ I said ‘that’s not what’s going to happen. In this performance you’re going to make a plate of food from the menu that you’d like to eat, then you’ll wash my hands and after that I will feed you the foods from your plate while I read you a Grimms fairy tale. Does that sound ok?’
She nodded, a little shocked.
Today I presented a new work – Hand to Mouth – at ‘Memory Banquet: Food and Other Acts of Remembering’, as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities, at University of Roehampton. When I was invited to participate in Memory Banquet, to make a new dance work in relationship to food, I sensed it as an opportunity to create a new work within a new frame. When I mined my own memories of food, intimacy was the first thought.
I grew up in Sri Lanka where people eat predominantly with their hands. I remember sitting on my father’s lap and being fed by him. We would eat from the same plate. He would put a ball of rice and curry into his mouth and then one in my mouth. Perhaps I even licked his fingers. This is how I first understood food. Connected to this memory is also that of my grandmother’s funeral and sitting with the women in my grandparents’ house eating with our hands, from one large, willow-patterned plate. Hands touching, laughing, talking, eating, sharing; it was initiation and belonging; food as shelter, food as tribe, food as chorus. In my childhood home in Colombo, Sri Lanka food was a source of connection and communication. When we moved to Melbourne, Australia we ‘lost’ our extended family and its social rituals, with that the role of eating and togetherness, changed.
Hand to Mouth is a dance work because it is assembled and unravelled through the body. The main physical act involves me feeding someone. This, on the one hand, is simple and everyday, on the other, it demands an intense concentration and inter-play with an other; listening to his rhythm of eating, sensing when and what she wants next, choosing (intuitively) from his plate so he gets a range of textures (or small surprises), judging when she needs or wants tea, negotiating the curves and banks of feeding her a hot liquid, reading him a story, allowing silence, using dramaturgical structures to pause a sentence or let him wait, without food, until I finish a sentence. In short facilitating intimacy, openness and control with a stranger all of which is derived from the intensely familiar ritual of feeding or being fed; a somatic act, deeply felt in the body, one that consistently triggers forgotten memories, thoughts and feelings.
‘I have to interrupt you’ said G. ‘Those salted chickpeas, they are the very taste of my childhood in Tuscany.’
Score or choreography of Hand to Mouth:
An audience member signed up for a slot, when their time came I met them at reception and walked them into Grove House Meeting Room, a sumptuous wood-panelled room in a Grade II listed Georgian Mansion, whereupon they are met with a scenography intended to transform them into another time and place – a space where reality and fiction blurred; a space where the outside world could be momentarily discarded, abandoned.
The performance lasted approximately 30 minutes, although I didn’t time it. I tried to sense it, to find endings that were not determined by the ring of a kitchen timer but rather dependent upon a listening skin. When the audience member came in I asked them to put their coat and bag on a chair especially reserved in the corner of the room so that when they sat at the large wooden table, covered in a white linen tablecloth, nothing encumbered them, they were free to play. Then I showed them the foods on the table and explained the ingredients and invited them to choose their own plate of foods. For Memory Banquet symposium, Hand to Mouth menu was inspired by the theme ‘high tea’:
T. was my first guest. She is from Sumatra, Indonesia. ‘In my culture’ she told me ‘you feed children from your own mouth. You put food in your mouth, chew it until it becomes soft and then give it from your mouth to your child. When my mother was old, she was 84, I did this for her. It’s a way of saying thank you to your parents. They did this once for you and now you do it to them, you say now you are old and I thank you for all the years of feeding me’.
S. was my third guest. This is S. choosing his plate.
What was curious about S. was that amidst the array of home baked melt-in-your-mouth gluten free chocolate cake, Sara’s grandma’s famous oat cookies, lemon cupcakes with silver icing, cucumber sandwiches and my more humble offerings of succulent kiwi fruit, roasted broad beans, sourdough bread and hummus chips, S. chose a slice of bread. ‘Would you like some butter on that?’ I asked. ‘No thanks’ he replied. I asked him why with all these wonderful foods on offer, and given that he told me he hadn’t had lunch, he might only choose a slice of bread to eat? ‘Because I love to eat simply’ he replied ‘I’ve always been like that, even as a child’. For the last 18 years, S. has eaten banana sandwiches everyday for lunch. ‘Do you snack?’ I asked him ‘Never!’ he replied. S. cycles 20 miles to and from work every day. “I hate to waste food’ he added. ‘Last week I threw out a bread roll. It’s the first thing I’ve thrown out in years.’ He leaned forward and whispered, ‘it was mouldy’.
After Hand to Mouth both S. and his wife L. who came (separately) to the performance told me ‘now I know how my daughter feels’. Their daughter, A. is 18 months and often spits out her food.
After the choosing of the plate, we enacted a hand-washing ritual i.e. the audience member washed and dried my hands.
Then we sat down, whereupon I fed him/her. Sometimes we talked. G. was a counsellor. She spoke of surrender. ‘I’m going to find this really hard’ she said, her hands clutched tightly together on her lap. ‘Why is that?’ I asked ‘because it’s not easy for me to let go’ she said ‘I work in rehab and I tell people all the time that they need to let go and trust in something higher than themselves but it’s not easy’.
Sometimes, I read my guests excerpts from Hansel and Gretel.
‘You’re doing all the work’ said L. ‘Do you want me to feed you?’
Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once, when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread.
‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales, first published in 1812, are about many things: magic and families, wickedness and talking animals. But running through many of them is a brutal obsession with food … Part of what gives these tales such enduring power is their sense of home, intimately connected to the security of being fed.’ (Wilson, 2012)
Everything is eaten again, we have one half loaf left, and that is the end. The children must go, we will take them farther into the wood, so that they will not find their way out again. There is no other means of saving ourselves.
‘Hunger was all too real for the Grimms. Their tales reflect the truth of peasant lives. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is set in a time of famine. What inspires the stepmother to abandon the children is abject poverty.’ (Wilson, 2012)
It was quite something to feed people in an ornate English room on a glorious winter afternoon surrounded by an abundance of cakes, fruit, sandwiches whilst reading them lines about children who walked the whole night and all the next day too from morning till evening, but they did not get out of the forest, and were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which grew on the ground.
Germany may well out of the economic hardship it faced in the late 1800’s (and later) but in many countries around the world today, abject poverty and starving children is no mere fairy tale.
It was a pleasure to use artist, Ania Bas’ ‘Literary Cutlery‘ set for this iteration of Hand to Mouth. The cutlery brought a subtle sense of play into the room, enabling acts of flight and fancy into other worlds and times, connecting reality and fiction. I met with Ania on a rainy winter’s night, outside a closed Tate Modern to do a handover of artwork! She generously agreed to let me have her set (there’s 48 altogether, mainly housed at Sugar Loaf Cafe, Portland) to serve the foods of Hand to Mouth. Literary Cutlery acted as a quiet presence in the performance. It’s purpose was to create a new space – a third space – one beyond feeding and fairy tale, a savoury, unuttered presence that acted as the voice that pops up repeatedly in Grimm. The one that says, ‘I’ll tell you a secret and you won’t be hungry anymore.’
Food as journey, food as poetry, food as ecstasy.
Hand to Mouth is a 1:1 participatory performance that can be adapted for diverse spaces / venues / festivals / homes / arts events. If you’re interested in having a conversation about commissioning it contact me.
Audience members said it was ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’, ‘interesting’, ‘comforting’ ‘bold’ and ‘surprisingly transgressive’.