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C. J. Biene
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
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New York City
New York
New York, NY

Cuisine & Confessions – A well rounded dish of a show from Les 7 Doigts

by C. J. Biene
April 11, 2017
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square
New York, NY 10012
To purchase tickets to "Cuisine & Confessions", click here.

Company website: www.7doigts.com

See also Robert Abrams' review and the show's performance program.

Micro-review (AKA tweet):
Cuisine & Confessions: Les 7 Doigts has cooked up a larger-than-life yet true-to-life treat of a show. C.J. Biene: ExploreDance.com/4660
At your most memorable birthday celebration, dear reader, there may very likely have been- - amongst the friends, family, and singing— cake. If you’re married, or in a serious relationship, at some point you probably had dinner with your significant other for the first time, and though what made it exciting and memorable wasn’t what you ate, the meal provided a perfect pretext and structure for spending an evening with your soon-to-be other half. And who’s ever taken a trip to Italy without returning with stories of sumptuous, sugar-sweet gelato, perfectly seasoned foccaccia, and high-quality vino?

Cuisine & Confessions, Les 7 Doigts’s latest internationally touring show, finds its heart in the simple fact that many of the most important moments in the narrative thread of our lives transpire over or around food. A mash-up of circus arts, contemporary dance, musical theater, and live cooking demo, the evening exemplifies the way that, just as in cooking, sometimes an unusual combination of ingredients results in something delicious; the perfect recipe needn’t always be the tried-and-true classic one. Shana Carroll and Sebastian Soldevila, have whipped up this unlikely mix of stylistic elements with adroitness and wit. This directing, writing, and choreographing duo have figured out how to fill the audience with joy, sorrow, nostalgia, fear, and hope— and banana bread! —all in one sitting. Though some parts of the show, such as feeding theater-goers who queue up in the house’s aisles after the show to sample what’s been baked and marinated during it, might look cheesy or try-too-hard on paper, they actually perfectly punctuate a show that’s all about whimsy and audience participation. Cuisine & Confessions could turn any audience into a good house.

At the top of the show, when the house opens and before the official opening "curtain", the audience walks in to find several performers already hanging out in their high-ceilinged kitchen, which happens to be the stage. One sips a cup of matcha through a straw. Another folds laundry, then hands some of it to a third. Two more at the cutting-board-topped island further upstage begin to chop and whisk what look like vegetables and eggs. This cast of characters seems familiar with one another; there appears to be a comfort bred of familiarity. Their interactions feel friendly and relaxed. They might be grown-up siblings in a summer house share, college roommates, or young adults splitting rent in a medium-sized city.

A member of the cast steps off the stage and descends a flight of steps as she heads towards my seat. She wants to know: would I like some coffee? Not quite sure what to expect, I follow her as she leads me up onto the stage and starts to take me around the set on a kind of tour. One of her companions, tossing candies into his mouth, thrusts a bag of colorful gummy bears in my direction and warmly asks me if I want some (I do). The coffee-offerer takes down a small mug from a shelf, pours me a hot cup of caffeinated brew, and then proceeds to show me the set’s oven, the refrigerator plastered with postcards from past tour cities, and an array of ingredients for the night’s recipes. She notes that all the knick-knacks decorating a large open bookcase which forms the set’s back wall are personal items that cast members and others affiliated with the show have contributed—they come from their own homes, their childhood homes, and other places they have lived. Instead of the kinds of mere props usually featured in shows- items which are only given meaning through the actors’ interaction with them and their role in the larger arc of the story- these objects arrived on set already full of meaning and memory. This is but one example of the detail-orientedness which makes the show shine and helps weave a cohesive thread through all its pieces.

While I am on stage, I wonder: how should I act? Should I play along and keep the fourth wall unbroken, as best I can, even though my very presence on stage is evidence that the fourth wall has been torn asunder? Or should I chat about “the show” as I sip my coffee, and make my trip around the kitchen an experience shared by two performers? Since I’m still wearing my clothes from my morning technique class, and thus I may assume that perhaps part of the reason I’ve been brought on stage is because maybe I look like a performer and so the cast feels I’m unlikely to freeze or behave unpredictably when on stage, should I let that invite me to say “the set” rather than “this kitchen” while I make small talk with the cast? I end up acting as though we’re in a real kitchen (which arguably the set, with its fully functioning appliances and piles of real groceries is) and I’m a neighbor who lives next door and has been invited in for a quick cup of coffee, not entirely sure if this is the right approach.

Later on, at various points during the evening, the performers throw eggs back and forth over the heads of the audience, bring theater-goers on stage to eat soup they’ve made and then hand them the microphone, and sit a woman from the second row on a chair and surround her as they sing a song. The audience eating what’s been prepared during the show after the final bow is far from the only time that audience participation serves as a humorous, noteworthy element of the performance. It’s also amazing how white-knuckling and jaw-tightening a banal, pedestrian, everyday object like an egg can be when it’s used skillfully; the creators of this show know how to reveal the extraordinary hiding inside the ordinary.

As I started to discuss above, food can signify so much more than it might at first glance appear. In many families, food is love and love is food. But food- and when and where and with whom we consume it- can also be a reminder of hard times and negative feelings. The tradition of a last meal for prisoners on death row, for example, reminds us that food isn’t always about joy, and that pleasure needn’t always be equated with happiness or a bright future. Or maybe just that nothing about food is as surface-level as it might seem. Over the course of our lives, we have the capacity to enjoy food, just barely stomach it, and everything in between. The cast’s songs and speech find their basis and motivation in this reality. Watching Cuisine & Confessions makes clear that food can tell us— and others— who we are; it can silently speak volumes about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. That’s how even a single tomato can tell a story.

Learning to cook for oneself can feel like growing up and be a symbol of self-reliance. (As one of my longtime friends told me with a laugh, and an inventive use of a noun as a verb, “I knew I could adult when a night at home with my boyfriend meant cooking, not delivery.”) I personally never liked to cook and found it to be an unimpressive hobby, until for the first time in my adult life I moved into a New York City apartment that featured a kitchen with a working oven (true story). It had been tricky to find the apartment and my negotiating the lease had been a struggle, but eventually I carried the day and move-in day arrived. Suddenly, I felt driven to prepare meals and snacks from scratch, even though I’d never had any real practice and was woefully underprepared for the task. A week after taking up residence at my new address, I christened the oven by baking a loaf of whole-grain bread speckled with sunflower seeds. Even though the bread emerged from the oven burnt and dry, every last seed charred black, each dehydrated morsel tasted sweet. Eating it felt like a triumph and a symbol of my resourcefulness. I was a real New Yorker now, and a grown-up.

The show finds its spine and its heart in moments like these; moments that pepper all of our lives like the spice thrown into the cast’s fragrant pasta recipe. It’s an open question whether the material at the core of the text and music has been written, fiction-style, by a gifted playwright and/or librettist; or whether it’s been sourced from interviews with the cast (or other individuals), A Chorus Line style. Either way, there’s a truth inside the material that cast and audience alike can sink their teeth into.

The cast is personable and hilarious; they feel like old friends. Each character is unique yet simultaneously a kind of “everyman”; when one character sings a sorrowful song about how a certain dinner reminds him of his broken family and poverty-stricken childhood, it is easy to empathize with him. When another performer gasps and exclaims her way through a long list of delectable desserts, she is all of us when we walk by a bakery or behold an oven full of cookies baking. The group brings a sense of freewheeling fun to the evening, too; when dancers stand on the kitchen island, watching them break the rules this way is curiosity piquing and exhilarating for the audience. There’s a childlike sense of play here, but it doesn’t turn what we’re seeing into a trite or one-dimensional show. The book and cast make it easy for the audience to realize that cooking is about more than mere food prep, eating is about more than physical sustenance, and Cuisine & Confessions is about more than energetic singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

The performers are, without exception, excellent and also well cast. One of the performers particularly excels at nimble, angular movements, and another’s easy, grand physicality enlivens his leaps and lunges and gives his motion a languid yet regal air reminiscent of a horse’s graceful trot. He performs his solo with such natural grace that the choreography looks custom-made for him (and it may well be). Each of the performers has great presence, and the cast is composed of intuitively connected ensemble members who can do the kinesthetic equivalent of finishing one another’s sentences. It’s the performers’ commitment to their roles and to the material that makes the show really work. When one cast member dances fiercely and bawdily with fruit piled atop her head, a la Chiquita Banana, the bit almost doesn’t work; but her willingness to so fully inhabit the character-within-a-character really sells the song and enables us to laugh along with her at the sensuality of food. Moments of satire and dark humor, such as when, in one scene, the cast makes an ironic mockery of infomercials, so-called wellness culture, and what I’m going to term the diet-industrial complex, give the show the self-awareness and dimension that it needs to be an intelligent piece of work. (Food, as it turns out, both can and can’t change your life.) The cast’s impeccable timing, of both verbal and kinesthetic varieties, is likewise key in making the show a success.

There’s plenty here for modern and contemporary dance fans. Triple- and quadruple focused choreography always gives us something marvelous to look at, and is a perfect fit for a show that’s in a way about diversity or at least variety (the performers hail from all kinds of different places, talk and sing in myriad languages, and emote about food from spam to crème brulee). Their movements always look organic to the body, but this isn’t release technique style abstraction. This show’s choreography melds a range of dance styles seamlessly; there’s both culinary and choreographic fusion at play. The circus arts elements provide a dash of surprise and almost never feel forced or out-of-place. They provide the same element of the unexpected that the best ballet and modern dance lifts do. The inclusion of circus elements is a tasteful and thoughtful one that works well in the context of the show. Because flashbacks and musical theater lend a unique, somewhat fantastical style to the show, the death-defying stunts performed on stage never seem campy or cheesy. Instead, they’re like the addition of just enough lemon to a bright and sunny tasting fruit salad or the inclusion of just enough vanilla in a chiffon-textured angel food cake.

Other elements of the show’s production and design are also on point: Eric Champoux’s lighting matches the larger-than-life scale of the show without turning campy or distracting, and Anne-Seguin Poirer’s pedestrian costuming works extremely well. Anna Cappelluto’s versatile set supports the action of the performance nicely; it’s creative and interesting without being overly flashy. No part of the show upstages the performers.

Les 7 Doigts has cooked up a larger-than-life, yet true to life, gem of a show that makes me wonder what else the group will have in store for audiences in coming years. See Cuisine & Confessions with an open mind, a healthy appetite, and a dash of curiosity.

Bon Appetit!

Photo © & courtesy of Alexandre Galliez

Photo © & courtesy of Alexandre Galliez

Photo © & courtesy of Alexandre Galliez

Photo © & courtesy of Alexandre Galliez

Photo © & courtesy of Alexandre Galliez

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