Radhouane El Meddeb took about an hour to prepare couscous with a heavily spiced stew of meat and vegetables in two rotund couscoussiere boiling on a low yellow platform of Ikea tables on the main stage at TBA:15’s The Works Wednesday night. He kept an iPod on another platform at the opposite end of the stage and used the space between to apply some heat and pressure to the the pacing, marching, and sometimes-dancing that one inevitably does while running a big cook up.
As he flitted between tracks on his iPod, stages in the feast, and intensifying passages of dance and engagement with the crowd, the whole piece began to feel like a recipe in itself. With a swagger underpinned by a solid, generous love for what he was doing and the traditions behind it, Meddeb mixed a few, rich ingredients and applied energy to produce a certain concoction that he served to the whole room.
The mood of Meddeb’s Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer oscillated between the sort of lighthearted or distracted prancing one does while on the schedule of a recipe and then, during the longer boils, something deeper and reverential as Meddeb clearly channeled his memories of other times and places where he was present for the preparation of this kind of feast. TBA’s notes mention how he “carefully observed his mother and his aunts preparing couscous and the national dishes served at his family’s gatherings from marriages to circumcisions to mourning rituals…” In the same way that the audience was aware of the ingredients for the feast and yet the specific magic of their preparation wasn’t made explicit, we could see that El Meddeb was remembering and reliving and paying homage without knowing exactly what he had in mind when he stared into the middle distance, palms up, between steps in the recipe, or when he suddenly changed tracks from traditional chants to Nina Simone’s “Don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Anyone who’s cooked a big dish while just trying to hold a conversation with someone else can sympathize with the challenge Meddeb set himself while controlling both the room and the cooking process for over an hour. The nature of the dish almost guarantees some doldrums, with the vegetables and meat and pasta all requiring their own time and treatment.
In the early stages, before the spice-flinging and before El Meddeb broke a sweat, I could see much of the audience drifting. His preparations and movements were often deliberately reckless or insouciant, but always with that warmth of attention that drives someone to cook socially. I doubt anyone would have preferred a more formal, precisely-choreographed dramatization of cooking while dancing, but there were a few moments before it really got going when I felt like I was watching a dinner party host who was about 15 minutes behind his guests’ arrivals. To be fair, that feeling was not inappropriate to the premise at all, and overall El Meddeb was clearly the master of this dish and his space.