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Hetain Patel: American Man

at Make Liverpool

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A visit to LEAP Festival in Liverpool brings a butt-stroking Barack Obama

Image of Hetain Patel: American Man

In one of our occasional series of reviews from elsewhere in the world, Martin Fyles reports back from a show at the LEAP Festival of Dance in Liverpool…

If the phrase “all human life is here” ever applied to the News of the World, as the tabloid itself once boasted, it’s surely even truer of the mixture of wannabes, celeb-stalkers, conspiracy theorists, gurus, zealots and con-artists who make up much of the weird and sometimes wonderful world of YouTube. A few hours amid the flotsam and jetsam of virtual life can quickly lead to the conclusion that the world is very strange indeed.

The same might be said of dancer and choreographer Hetain Patel’s solo contribution to Liverpool’s ever-enjoyable LEAP Festival last week. And given that a large part of the show’s material consists of Patel’s own peculiar, provocative and often comical take on YouTube videos in all their bewildering variety, that’s no bad thing.

The tone for much of what follows is set in the opening scene; the lights go up on that classic American comic-book hero, Spider-Man, striking an elegant pose, ready to pounce. Suddenly, the stirring incidental music cuts out, and Spider-Man stands up, his shoulders hunched, and in a reedy little voice explains in a slight Hispanic accent that he is, of course, no real superhero, but just a regular Mexican guy making the last ever Spider-Man video for his YouTube channel. He then removes the iconic outfit (after an amusingly inelegant amount of fumbling) to show us what he’s wearing underneath and – well, things get a whole lot weirder.

As in this initial sequence, so for the rest of the show: each of the dizzying array of characters that Patel brings vividly to life, by mimicry and body-popping physical theatre, is deliberately undermined by a sense of unreality, of imitation. His take on Obama has the familiar voice and the oratorical hand gestures, certainly. But then you realise this Obama is speaking to us from seven years into an impossible future – one in which, to Barack and Michelle’s considerable surprise, President Trump has brought us closer to world peace than we have ever been. And once you’ve seen Obama as a deranged life coach, repeatedly thrusting his pelvis at the stage floor while rubbing his buttocks lasciviously and promising to make each man “a better misogynist… the best misogynist”, it’s fair to say you may never look at the erstwhile leader of the Free World in the same light again.

Not all of Patel’s myriad sketches make quite such an impact, as is inevitable with his scattershot approach. His stage presence is undeniable, however – he holds the audience’s attention throughout – and he gets us thinking about questions of identity that go a lot deeper than the source of his parodies. In particular, he seems to be suggesting that the perennial question of what it means to be human – and not just an American man – is more vexed than ever. When the funniest sequence of the night, a YouTube guide on How To Sit Like an Alpha Male, seems like only a mildly exaggerated version of some actual self-help videos, it’s hard not to conclude that plugging into virtual teachers such as these is unlikely to help anyone “learn to be hu-u-uman to-o-oo” – to quote Professor Stephen Hawking, himself quoting King Louie in the show’s strangely wistful, typically offbeat finale.