Cinnamon (right? or was it nutmeg?) flying through the air. Repeated gestures at the corner of the square stage area. Smacking: on his legs, his head, his butt, his thighs. Some sarcastic glances and playful aloofness with the audience. Spending the whole time thinking, “I have food allergies and there might be some things I’m allergic to in this dish, I can’t possibly eat any of it even if he gives us a chance,” and then eating food anyway, in the name of art. This is what I’m left with from Radhouane El Meddeb’s show Je danse et vous en donne à bouffer and might even be what I carry with me most from this year’s TBA festival.

Let’s get this out of the way: dance and movement pieces are the hardest for me to process. It’s a bit of a creative wall for me, and one of my favorite things about going to TBA year after year is just trying to get better and better at understanding these performances (while also just being able to use a pass and go to a show on a whim; that makes it a lot easier to take a chance).

So for me, part of this show was spent thinking, “why?” I had so many questions:

  • What do these gestures convey?
  • What makes him switch from making food to dancing and back?
  • Why is the music so, so loud, and why is there one English language song in the middle?
  • How does this music relate to the cooking, and what are these singers singing about? What about the choice to control his own music through an iPod touch, an object that became a part of the performance a lot more than perhaps intended?
  • Why are there two different (but similar) pots of couscous being cooked, and what is the significance of the cooking implements?

About halfway through the piece, though, I remembered that so much of performance is just taking it in, taking it all in. Not worrying about the why’s or even necessarily the how’s, just watching what’s happening in front of me. El Meddeb got more playful with the audience, and as the food was more and more ready to be eaten, the pace picked up. And when he started adding spices to the mix, and finally grabbed a bowl of cinammon and ran around the room with it, we all were there with him, filled with delight.

As the smell of the cinnamon and the actual grit of it hit me, I was reminded of how often my grad school instructors dared us to use all five senses, but how smell and taste and touch were not the easiest to include in a performance. Yet here we were, watching him make a meal, seeing the footprints he created through the cinnamon on the ground, anticipating the moment when we’d get to eat the food he made.

When it came down to it, although my nut allergies scared me a bit, I finally decided: you know what? If I get sick, or someone needs to call an ambulance because I ate something I shouldn’t have eaten, at least I did it for art. I chowed down on my portion of the meal, burning my mouth a bit on a too-large-for-plastic-utensils piece of beef, and considered the odd generosity of spending an entire long performance cooking food for your audience. It capped my personal first night at TBA with spicy goodness and a sense of awe; i knew then that thinking of him as “the couscous guy” (as people kept calling him) diminished so much of the magic of the performance. I’m glad I was able to see (and hear and smell and taste) this one.

— Jim Withington