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Hetain Patel - Be Like Water

6 February 13 words: Rachel Elderkin
Hetain Patel crosses video and live art to create a performance that offers an unexpectedly amusing insight into our ideas of identity

Hetain Patel - Be Like Water

From the start this performance is honest and open. There is a distinct lack of theatrical pretence – the tangle of wires and cameras are left exposed, with technician Barret Hodgson operating all the visual media from the stage. Hetain’s determination to hide nothing, to continually expose his thoughts and practice, in fact adds to the engaging nature of this performance – and regularly results in laughter.

Hetain has chosen to speak predominately in Chinese through a translator, dancer Yuyu Rau. There is no prescribed artistic reason for this, it is simply "to avoid assumptions made from his Northern accent". We soon discover that Hetain can speak only one paragraph of Chinese; a recurring joke throughout the performance as Hetain expresses the same words with differing emphasis (fortunately, he doesn’t plan to show the work in China anytime soon). 

Yet despite Hetain’s frank and casual delivery there is more artistry and meaning to his work than he lets on. Yuyu is far more than a translator – she is a way for Hetain to explore his self objectively. A video diary of Hetain growing his hair to imitate his father – the narration hilariously focused on his resultant wayward moustache – is afterwards projected onto Yuyu’s face. No longer is she a translator but Hetain himself. ‘Be Like Water’ is a deconstruction of identity, where Hetain and Yuyu become each other, and use each other, to showcase an exploration of the self.

Video and projection is continually used alongside the performance on stage. Extracts from Hetain’s video work ‘To Dance Like My Dad’ offer an insight into his relationship with his father. A brilliant mimicking act arises from this – Hetain following his father’s movements as he goes about his daily work in a car factory, words and gestures perfectly timed to great comic effect.

The use of video is always clever and inventive. Using cameras and projections we see the live performance before us as a video on the moveable screens. It can become CCTV footage as Hetain re-enacts the amusing reason behind his one night stint in a cell. It can show us the dance-like movements of Kung Fu (an art form returned to throughout the piece) from angles and perspectives we would not otherwise see, creating an almost three-dimensional performance. At one point the screens are moved forward, blocking the audience’s view of the stage and the live performance, continuing behind the screens, becomes a video in front of us.

This use of video has a strange, distancing effect on reality. You feel you are watching a film, although it is actually the performance in front of you. Through the crossover between video and live, on-stage performance, Hetain blurs the boundaries of what is virtual and what is reality. It is an intriguing use of these mediums. Combined, they reflect on each other in a way similar to Hetain’s reflection on his own identity through the figure of Yuyu.

Hetain Patel - Be Like Water

Throughout the performance Hetain uses ever more inventive ways of speaking and communicating with the audience – you can guarantee he will never resort to simple, direct speech. A fascinating use of projection allows Hetain to draw words out of the air. The intense focus of the audience as they read the emerging words shows how Hetain’s innovative methods engage and captivate.

Musician Ling Peng is also present on-stage and cannot go without mention. Her amazing echoing of Hetain’s ‘Chinese phrase’ on the Erhu, beautifully captures the musical tones of the Chinese language before developing into its own plaintive music.

It is to this background of traditional Chinese music that Yuyu amusingly demonstrates the contrasts between her ballet training and contemporary dance; through movements overly floppy, quirky and odd. It is a fitting close to the show – a parody into learning new methods and new languages; into forming a new identity. But Yuyu won’t be stopped by Hetain – she is not simply a translator but a performer and influencing presence in her own right. Her movement develops and continues as a solo choreography; fluid, free and graceful.

‘Be Like Water’ highlights our formation of identity, of human traits, our use of language and gesture. Yet we are also left questioning what we regard as art, and how we differentiate between what is reality and what is virtual.

Yuyu dances, Hetain watches; the stage grows darker, Ling’s music fades and Barret walks over – ‘Power Off’.


Hetain Patel performed Be Like Water at the Lakeside Arts Centre on Tuesday 5 February 2013

Hetain Patel



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