Hetain Patel’s Be Like Water is a curious mix of the self-regarding and the self-effacing. On the one hand, it is clearly all about him. He has a slideshow of his 21-year-old self sporting a side parting and a moustache in an experiment to make himself look more “Indian”. He tells us about his dad, a Gujarati working in a car factory in Bolton, with a northern accent to match, and shows us some video footage of him at work. He recalls his love of comic superheroes as a boy, his enthusiasm for the films of Bruce Lee, where he learned such pearls of wisdom as “empty your mind!” and “be like water!”. And he talks about making this very performance, how some of his ideas came from a trip to China and his frustration at not being able to speak Mandarin.
On the other hand, every self-reference is deflected, reflected or refracted away. He matches the movements of his filmed father, so that he appears as the shadow of an image of someone else. He performs with an onstage partner, Taiwanese dancer Yuyu Rau, who often speaks to the audience on his behalf. At the beginning, they are seated on moveable platforms, he in a characteristic Indian squat, she with knees together, demurely oriental. But he speaks in Mandarin (for all I know, with a marked Bolton accent) while she, with her Chinese accent, translates into English for us. They do a lot of this: ventriloquising each other so as to separate subject from speaker, or switching positions from actor to narrator and back again. He projects his moustachioed face onto hers, to make a compound creature, part flesh, part image. She stands behind him as he speaks, her gesticulating hands standing in for his. And often they talk simultaneously so that we can’t pin down who is talking about which self.
Such doubling-up devices are familiar from the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and Patel and Rau are clearly less polished in their delivery (Patel, from a visual arts background, is not a trained dancer). But I think Patel also wants us to see those mismatches in timing, the differences between his kung fu and hers, the contrasts in physical and spoken accent that they bring, because they underline his themes of imitation and imperfection. He likes showing us the cranky workings of a mechanism more than the glossy finish of a result.
The stage is designed to show that too. On one side, we see digital artist Barret Hodgson, and his bank of switches and monitors; on the other, musician Ling Peng, with her Chinese zither and fiddle. On stage, the screens and cameras and projectors and platforms are as visible as the performers. Words projected into thin air are revealed by the simple mechanism of Patel waving a long wooden ruler in mid-air. No stage trickery here.
No, the trickery is in plain view, with the comic role reversals, the deft self-deprecations, the imitations and misrepresentations. It’s charming and stimulating – and for me at least, simultaneously frustrating. Be Like Water is chock full of ideas, but they come thick and fast, each giving way to the next before it’s had time to register properly, let alone develop. Granted, Patel weaves every scene around his central themes, so the piece steadily accumulates depth as it progresses. But it was the final scene, in which he effaces himself altogether to allow Rau to dance for some time and for Ling Peng to play, the bustle of text and image giving way to the more fluid time of sound and motion – where the performance becomes more like water – that made me feel Patel could achieve more with less. Didn’t Bruce Lee say something like that?