All Over Creation: Senses and Sensibilities
By engaging our sense of taste during a performance, Voice Dance Company blew our mind
Gina Patterson gave me a taste of Mercutio. In more ways than I'd ever expected.
The former company dancer with Ballet Austin, now a very-much-in-demand freelance choreographer, has been playing around with Shakespeare's mischief-maker of late while developing choreography for a new ballet of Romeo and Juliet that the Puerto Rican dance troupe CoDa21 (Compañia de Danza Siglo 21) commissioned from her. With the work's San Juan premiere still 10 months off, Patterson chose to give some of the material a test run through Voice Dance Company, the local troupe she co-founded with husband Eric Midgley (himself a BA alum) and for which she acts as artistic director. Scanning the program before the Monday, July 9 performance at Mercury Hall, I saw that some of the material concerned Romeo's mercurial BFF – his famous, feverish rap about the fairy queen, Mab, and his unfortunate death at the hands of Juliet's cousin – so I expected a taste of Mercutio in the sense of a sampling of the character as he'll appear in Patterson's full, completed work.
What I hadn't realized was that, this being part of Voice's "Aphrodite Dances" series, food and drink would be served throughout the performance. Not as mere refreshments, mind you, but components of the work – something to inform the dances presented through the sensations of smell and taste or, to quote the program: to "integrate the senses by merging dance and the culinary arts." In the series' first outing, Aphrodite Dances: Chocolate, the audience was served cocoa-infused bites and shot glasses full of warm liquid chocolate while dancers explored ideas from bitter to sweet and, in the last dance, had melted chocolate poured over their shoulders ("Aphrodite Dances: Chocolate," Oct. 7, 2011). For Aphrodite Dances: Romeo Drive – the title referring to not just Shakespeare's moonstruck Verona teen but also the surname of Patterson's grandparents and the street on which they lived – Patterson engaged chef John Sutton of In Good Taste Catering & Design to provide flavors corresponding to themed sections of the program: assorted cheeses and olives for "Family," a skewered cherry tomato and ball of fresh mozzarella on a Romaine lettuce leaf for "Love," cheese-stuffed ravioli drizzled with chocolate and garnished with Red Hots for "Hate." And wine. Oh yes: chewy, robust, blood-red wine. And so I got a taste of Mercutio I hadn't anticipated.
When Chris Hannon stepped forth to dance Mercutio's Queen Mab speech as the text of it was read aloud, I took a fresh sip of the vino at our table, and its flavors – dark, earthy, with a slight bitterness in the finish – were playing in my mouth as Hannon impressively strutted, spun, and dropped the odd hip-hop gesture. Now, this was not my first time to sip a little fruit of the grape while enjoying a performance, but outside of a Passion play, I've never felt that beverage so intimately connected to what I was watching. The wine's flavor seemed so well-matched to the character of this dramatic figure – his boldness, his intensity, the lingering acidity in his wake. And because this perception wasn't rooted in sight or hearing but in taste – a sense I rarely employ in a theatre – my sense of this familiar character, whom I've known for 40 years from dozens of versions of R&J, took on new dimensions. I appreciated Mercutio more fully than I had in decades. And when Hannon and Ballet Austin's Frank Shott danced the duel in which Mercutio is slain, and I was chewing on that ravioli – the flavor of the savory cheese dancing with the sweet chocolate and both suddenly overwhelmed by the Red Hots' cinnamon bite – I was again made more keenly aware of the rapidly shifting emotions of Mercutio and of the fire within him through means other than language or movement. That isn't to take away anything from Hannon's dancing, which is as astonishing to me now as it was in his glory days in Ballet Austin's company, or Patterson's choreography, which grows more original and assured and honest all the time. But Patterson's found a way to deepen our involvement in her work, to take us to new levels within it by engaging more of our senses.
She isn't alone in this. The Rude Mechanicals have incorporated food and drink into some of their productions, most recently Now Now Oh Now. And the Fusebox Festival's Digestible Feats arm (should that be tongue?) specifically explores collaborations between performing artists and culinary artists. I've been fortunate to experience both and found their engagement of my nose and taste buds to be revelatory as well, mostly because of the thought and care that's gone into the match of food with dance, drink with play. It can't be done casually, or it comes off as a gimmick or else a pedestrian snack, like popcorn and Jujubes at the movies. Treated seriously, though, it's as mind-expanding as a great wine paired perfectly with a meal. It can be a design element as potent as lighting or sound.
Chew on that a while.