Asian Music and Dance

Be Like Water

How much of us is found in others? For visual artist, choreographer and performer Hetain Patel, his discoveries take to the philosophy of his childhood hero, martial artist Bruce Lee: “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless like water.”

Patel’s Be Like Water is in collaboration with Taiwanese dancer Yuyu Rau and, taking centre stage, he (Patel) speaks in Mandarin Chinese and she (Rau) translates in English. The purpose of this exercise? To step outside himself. 

Their introductory presentation, a scripted dialogue of making assumptions and confused identities is sharp, agile and prompt, the mannerisms one would expect from those entering combat.

Rau transforms into a warrior, her demure physicality flows as ink does to a quill’s nib, dancing her words across a stage that has laid out as a formidable scroll.

Patel’s initial interaction is gawky; this story is re-enacting childhood memories, of a dreamer who looked up to becoming Bruce Lee or Spiderman. The virtues of these prolific figures were fantastical but his account here, now, returns to his reality, his Northern roots, even if displaced.

Their stage has cameras positioned at various points, a borderline invitation for forensic analysis and voyeuristic ritual, to capture self-exploration and a confused sense of belonging.

Two large portable screens provide a cinematic experience, displaying the performers’ theatrical antics and a pre-filmed presentation of Patel’s father at work, in a car manufacturer’s factory. 

What unfurls is a tale of individual expressionism capturing the generational difference between father and son. Where practicality becomes a necessity to house, feed and educate a better future in a new land. A storyboard telling their ages from industrial to technological evolution contributing to a relationship of parallel existence and purpose.

This reflection is one of social identity conflicting with inner identity and beauty – that becomes life’s quest to discover – with the given objective for man to become a machinist to create for his own survival.

Rau and Patel appear odd together, yet their compatibility smoothes and roughens the other’s characteristic edges. They could be Adam and Eve, Rama and Sita, Antony and Cleopatra, or even Amitabh and Rekha. 

They are accompanied by Ling Peng on the erhu and Guzheng, who at one point is requested to play to give a feeling of being Chinese; and digital artist Barret Hodgson. From their outskirts they bolster the stage with energy and effects.

There is the occasional use of a prop, a meter ruler, and with their minds it transforms into a samurai sword from a stick they instruct with, as an old-school teacher would. 

While pouring out with philosophy of self-learned discoveries, Patel dabbles as a desired modern hero casually sparked within his own central nervous system. 

There is an earlier moment when he takes to a spotlight with Rau behind him, her arms slide underneath his and gesticulate with delicate proficiency. 

This brief poetic soliloquy takes on a striking attitude of an Akram Khanism: a fashion of quirky self-expression interplayed with multiple layering of speech and non-verbal communication in verbatim. 

The film footage of Patel’s father at work is one of two humble moments. Patel senior guides the audience on the happenings in his working life. The recording gives a sense of gritty reality of life beyond idealism that an artist may indulge in but through art becomes a visual proverb. His father is his maker, and in his own right, a creative too. His guided tour gives explanations of parts, fittings and assembling of a mechanical body, to one day becoming a mode of transport. 

Just as the human body, transporting expression for the meaning of life, relating to humanity and touching a soul, Patel’s point here is that we are made of many parts. Others create us and we also make ourselves. What it takes to understand the elements of self-manufacturing that give recognition to who we really are.

The second humbling experience sees Patel waving the ruler as a magical tool, which, with technological sorcery displays words in the air. Patel confesses with the honour of a warrior, words any father would be proud to hear, to be just like his father. As Bruce Lee once said: “If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle.” Considering the human body is about 70 per cent water – we are almost full cups ourselves – Patel and Rau successfully give transparency with Be Like Water in random parts.

The essence of their questioning is: Whose words do we lead by, to speak what the world can see us as?



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