What is the role of a critic? The simplest way to consider their task is to describe them as a conduit between the audience and the performance. One facet of that responsibility is informing the audience whether they ought to bother booking a ticket to a show, based on a press night performance. Not every critic has the luxury of only reviewing the particular genre of performance they are interested in – ask anyone who’s covered the Edinburgh Festival, or the Christmas pantomime season – but every critic should keep a show’s ideal audience in mind.
So, with that audience in mind, I give you a pull quote for An Evening of Meat: “Combining six delicious courses – available as meat, vegetarian or vegan options – with an engaging, occasionally interactive tabletop cabaret, this show is an enjoyable dining experience. Taking place over two hours, it’s a sort of what would happen if a troupe of burlesque performers invaded a supper club. If you’re big on ‘experiences’ or regularly check what’s on offer on DesignMyNight or Time Out’s deal email, you really shouldn’t miss out on this. You will eat some genuinely tasty food with a fresh and surprising combination of flavours (three day prepared watermelon as a veggie alt for beef carpaccio was inspired). You will have fun. An Evening of Meat’s main purpose is fun.” If that’s all you need from a review, you can stop reading here.
The other role of the critic is more complex, and depending on the outlet and the readership, debatable. Rather than centring the ideal audience, it centres the creative context of a work of art.
An Evening of Meat is a deliberately provocative title. The logo for the show is a woman on all fours, in her underwear, wearing antlers on her head, one of her feet shod in stiletto heels and the other turning into a hoof. It’s not much of a leap to understand that the performers, as well as the food, are up for consumption tonight. For what purpose, then, are we ‘consuming’ these women?
In an interview with Run Riot, director/choreographer Kate March says that An Evening of Meat ‘naturally provokes an atmosphere that champions body positivity, female sensuality and the disruption of male gaze’, and empowers its performers, and that by witnessing this empowerment, ‘all the audience members may vicariously feel a sense of connection and inspiration’. I’d like to examine these claims based on my experience of the show.
As a dance critic, I have almost nothing to say about the choreography. The performers dance energetic short phrases, drawing inspiration from voguing and acroyoga, between courses. They all perform with aplomb. As a veteran yoga bore, I absentmindedly tick off tripod headstands, navasana, salamba sarvangasana (with cycling legs) and flying front plank among the Instagrammable highlights. An Evening of Meat isn’t about choreography – it’s about the experience of eating a tasty meal while women make shapes on the table in front of you.
I do not feel especially invited or inspired by what I see, although I do envy some of those perfectly executed headstands. Is this body positivity? If body positivity just means trained bodies performing well, then ballet would be the ultimate exercise in body positivity. And there the mind balks.
Is the body positivity part of the loose narrative that An Evening of Meat follows, where the women are ‘empowered’ to go from horizontal on the table in front of us to standing upright and wearing marvellous headdresses? Is their ownership of their sensuality positivity?
I sometimes like to play a fun game with myself or my +1s, which is called How Many Other People Of Colour Are There In The Audience. Props to An Evening of Meat – there were at least four on my table alone, excluding me, and the venue looked to seat about fifty. Not only that, but there were women of colour among the performers. Incredible!
But, sitting down at the horseshoe-shaped dining table – punctuated by the bodies of three performers, with a fourth sitting on a chair in the empty space in front of the bar – I notice something else. All four performers are dressed in skimpy, multi-layered, provocative clothes, including bras, briefs, leggings, jackets and crop tops, and most of them feature either Chinese brocade patterns or are clearly inspired by the cheongsam cut. The ‘Oriental’ appears in use as a shortcut for the exotic, sensual, mysterious feminine, ad nauseam, as per.
Costume designer Lisa Von Tang is the Chinese-German founder of fashion house Chi Chi Von Tang, so this isn’t the lazy use of racist tropes or cultural appropriation (for further reading, here is Von Tang’s essay on her collection inspired by the tribal women of Myanmar). It is possible that this choice of costume is supposed to be subversive, or even satirical. But satire doesn’t work if it is indistinguishable from the dominant hegemony it is trying to critique. These costumes look Orientalist even though they aren’t. They have coded the performers as submissive caricatures within the artistic language of the piece.
On the subject of language – there is none spoken. Parts of the performance are interactive. The women – the ‘meat’ – begin by taking our hands, fiddling with our cutlery, staring longingly into our faces, draping their jackets over our shoulders. By the end of the evening, at my end of the table, one woman is enthusiastically feeding a performer chocolate mousse from her plate and pouring wine over her. A man is persuaded to lie down on the table and the performers squirt water from a jug into his mouth. Another audience member is coiled in rope and fed a shot of tequila. Everybody is creasing with laughter; they are having a real jolly time of it. But throughout all of this, the performers are silent. They never speak. They communicate in mime, in facial expressions, in extremely kittenish, girlish, playful gestures. They are voiceless women.
If there was more in the way of a developed movement language, if they weren’t dressed as Orientalist fever dreams, if there was a narrative that more clearly critiqued the role of the consuming audience, I’d feel more comfortable about this. But there isn’t.
Female sensuality is silence and underwear.
The disruption of the male gaze
Silent women presented as dishes by the title of the piece cutely batting at your napkin disrupts the male gaze? How? Because they stand up at the end?
The performers are paid. They are doing their job. They are extremely good at it. During one of the between-course lulls, queuing for the toilet, I hear a woman say to her friend, “Oh, I always wanted to come to something like this!” Amusement and chat abound. People are having a good time; I hope this is empowering for the performers.
But, taking into account the rest of my review, I reject the idea that this performance is intrinsically empowering, in either its concept or its execution. An Evening of Meat succeeds as a dining experience; it fails cataclysmically as a feminist work of art. I cannot even really say where the subversion or disruption is supposed to be. It’s not subversive for people to pay money to see women dance, even in very little clothing. It’s not disruptive to have burlesque at dinner; the Moulin Rouge makes a mint from it. This transaction already exists in other places. It’s just not radical. The performers perform; the audience pays and enjoys. We have consumed the meat, and we haven’t learned anything about it, except that it tastes nice.
An Evening of Meat is on until 2 June 2018 at The Vaults. Click here for more details.