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Reflections on "Water In The Kettle" by MoTor/Dance

MoToR/Dance performs "Water in the Kettle." Photo by Dean Bosche.

“Put the water on…Put the water in the kettle…” The performers’ voices swoop around the space, weaving in and out of one another as their bodies rock, walk, slap, and stomp in time to the song. I’m seated on the left side of a large semi-circular audience in a lofty wooden auditorium, immersed in the sounds of this corporeal orchestra. The performers move up and down the aisles, pulsing ever closer to the kettle at the center of the stage like raindrops running along the spokes of a wheel. “Put the water on…Put the water in the kettle…” The words leap from their rhythmic bassline like a request, a demand, a statement of intention, a call to arms. By the time they reach the kettle, my body is electric.

I’m at Rhythmix Cultural Works watching the world premiere of “Water in the Kettle” by MoTor/dance, directed by dancer, musician, and body percussionist Evie Ladin. This show has been years in the making. (They started the process pre-pandemic.) This extended “simmer-time” is unmistakable in the clarity and intention with which the show has been constructed, and the precision and energy with which the cast performs it.

Structurally, the show feels like an expertly-crafted set list. Each scene weaves from one to the next with the unique magic of non-linear logic. The show doesn’t rely on any specific narrative or “plot,” but instead finds cohesion through the investigation of a central theme—experiences of “womanhood,” particularly for women at or moving towards middle age. There are full ensemble numbers featuring original songs that weave together incisive lyrics with Appalachian and African-diasporic polyrhythmic beats; awe-inducing steel guitar and banjo solos; "trios" between bodies, voices, and instrument; spoken monologues based on performers’ real experiences and reflections on womanhood, motherhood, and female-ness… and the list goes on.

Throughout, the performers demonstrate a virtuosic command of the interplay between physicality, rhythm, and musicality to poke, prod, interrogate, and propose perspectives on what it means to be a woman—often with a delightful dose of dry humor. One of the most memorable numbers for me comes about a third of the way through the piece, when the performers all come out wearing dresses that seem taken straight from a 50’s housewife’s closet. They form a large clump behind a wooden table, and begin to tumble and pour over one another towards the audience, each vying for a single spot at the front. As they claw and push one another aside, they sing in a sweet-voiced cannon, “Thank you for talking over me.” Their voices drown one another out even as they create the sweetest of harmonies. The perky melody, their too-bright smiles, and their ruthless struggle for attention create a hilarious and biting satire of the struggle so many women face in simply being listened to or taken seriously.

In a more earnest moment, performer Tammy Chang performs a monologue based on real conversation with her mother. “Mom, were you in love with Dad when you married him?” Chang’s first questions come in a casual, conversational tone. “Why didn’t you go to university like you wanted to?” “Why did you leave Taiwan to come to America?” For each of her mother’s responses, Chang follows up: “But why? What did you really want?” The conversation ends with her mother hitting the table with open palms: “Stop asking me if I wanted to do things, we just did them, ok?!” The theater is quiet as Chang leaves the stage—an unexpectedly profound moment amidst a generally more humorous show. I’m touched by the honesty in this moment, and impressed with how seamlessly the performers are able to move between emotional tenors without missing a beat.

As the show goes on, I find myself noticing how much fun the performers seem to be having. More, they seem to truly care about what they’re doing. Their full-hearted commitment especially shines through in the impressive precision of the choreography. In this show, movement is sound and sound is movement, and so every moment of synchronicity or syncopation is not only visible, but also audible. More often than not, the performers smile while they move, and their power and clarity feels contagious.

Throughout, the performance continues to refer to the kettle, and the motif accumulates meanings. On a basic level, “putting the water in the kettle” feels like a reference to traditional gender roles—a nod to domesticity and the expectation that women play the role of caretaker in the home. But “putting the kettle on” also begins to take on a new meaning: changes are brewing. Things are about to boil over, if they haven’t already. By the end of the show, as they sing the kettle song one last time, Ladin makes her way upstage with the ensemble clustered around her. She holds the kettle high above the table, and then lowers it ever so slowly. All eyes are on the kettle. The kettle hits the table, and then the lights go off. I am left with the sense that not only is the kettle already on—the water is boiling.

Big thank you to Evie Ladin and her collaborators. I’m already eagerly awaiting their next show!

This post was also published on "Life As A Modern Dancer":


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