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µTopian Dinners and Dining With the Enemy

Detroit-based experimental theater ensemble The Hinterlands hosts a series of uTopian Dinners, forging connections between artists around the world.

A table of abundance at a previous µTopian Dinner (image courtesy of The Hinterlands)

DETROIT — In today’s climate of alienation and separatist behavior, artists surely cannot be the only ones doing some hard thinking about ways to examine notions of difference, the concept of “enemy” states, and tactics for overcoming such perceived divisions in the interest of unity. But it is possible that artists are among the experts in this type of social experimentation, practiced as they are in finding ways to forge interpersonal connections through gesture, metaphor, and performance — or sometimes just by inviting people to dinner.

“Food is so interesting, because it evokes memory, and it’s a multi-sensory experience,” said Liza Beilby, in an interview with Hyperallergic during preparations for one in a series of µTopian Dinners, staged by Detroit-based experimental theater ensemble The Hinterlands and co-produced with Poetic Societies, a performance lab fostering cross-cultural and poetic connections. Bielby, along with co-director Richard Newman, leads a rotating ensemble in the creation of original performance works through a process of rigorous physical training and interdisciplinary, often international, collaboration. Since 2017, the group has been staging permutations of the µTopian Dinners as a subset of a larger work, The Enemy of My Enemy, a hybrid, digital-live performance project that simultaneously links performers and audiences in the US and so-called “enemy” nations of China, Russia, and Iran.

“We’ve been doing these µTopian Dinner projects as a way for us to use our training practice with other people, that doesn’t result in a performance,” said Bielby. “The point about training is that you have a personal research question, and through doing physical actions, you come to some kind of understanding about the question, that isn’t directly logical — more intuitive, or metaphorical — and that’s the part that sometimes carries over to a performance.”

In this case, The Hinterlands views the µTopian Dinner projects as a kind of a laboratory to investigate the cultural values that are reinforced through eating, meals, and cooking. This month, µTopian Dinners took literally to the streets, as the ensemble presented a four-part performance and rotating series of events, during the homegrown and wildly popular Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts — brainchild of dancer and organizer Ryan Myers-Johnson — which celebrated its sixth year in the Brightmoor/Old Redford neighborhoods of Detroit.

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead traveling unit at the Sidewalk Festival for the Performing Arts (image courtesy of the MOCAD)

Newman and Bielby, supplemented by performers Norma Jean, Julia Yezbick, and Salakastar, among others — as well as their foreign counterparts tuning in from Moscow, Bejing, and Tehran — operated out of the modular traveling unit from Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which is permanently housed at the MOCAD, making one of the rare forays into the farther-flung Detroit neighborhoods for which it was expressly designed. A second performance is slated for the coming weekend at the Dixieland Flea Market in Waterford Township — far beyond the city’s northern border of Eight Mile — where The Hinterlands will perform on both Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re looking at: what are the values of our [United States] culture, and how would you change that?” said Beilby. “Because we need to change. But we’re working with other people in other countries for this project, and some of them are also looking at similar questions.”

Detroit artist Salakastar as seen via video in a session with Tehran-based artist Alireza Keymanesh. Image courtesy of The Hinterlands.

Hinterlands collaborators reflect the troupe’s long history of international training and performance, including Beilby’s intensive study Sichuan Chuanju Academy in traditional Chinese operatic performance. The Enemy of My Enemy has been co-produced with graphics and production artist Renee Willoughby, as well as Ava Ansari, the founding director of Poetic Societies. Ansari co-curated some of the connections to a group of nine Iranian artists based in Tehran, who have participated in training exercises and cultural exchange via livestream and online call software since last year.

Artist and designer Yi Zhou, who runs a studio out of Beijing called Body Memory, met The Hinterlands during her 2016 residency at Popps Packing, and the ensemble has visited her twice over the last two years, touring with their previous show, The Radicalization Process, and other performances.

“In between the first year that we went and the second year that we went, she and a bunch of friends who are designers and architects started this group called TGIS,” said Beilby. “It’s a Sunday brunch in this little courtyard at the studio of one of the members, and they invite people to come and have brunch, and then there’s a lecture, or talk, or conversation, which are themed.” During the Sidewalk performance, Hinterlands Skyped into the beginning of the brunch taking place in Bejing.

The μTopian Dinner team shares a meal across Skype (image courtesy of The Hinterlands)

“The nature of this medium, where you’re not in the same place, but you are connecting at some point, is that you don’t have to be doing the same things,” said Beilby. “There are these moments of working on something together, but also there’s something that you’re doing that’s influencing what I’m doing. It’s like translation, in a way. You’re trying to contextualize something for the people where you are, that’s meaningful, and then express something about the people here to another group.”

Implementing this process of non-textual translation via food practices carries a kind of power in the fact of it being a non-verbal form of communication, but one that nonetheless is extremely culturally specific.

An array of “new national dishes” developed via µTopian Dinner projects (images courtesy of The Hinterlands)

“Culture is contained within food,” said Beilby. “And personality is contained within what foods you are drawn to. It’s an interesting way to try to bridge two spaces or times or peoples, through sensory experiences that aren’t just talking.”

In addition to making conversation between international dinner guests — as well as an artist collective channeled in from Moscow through a series of connections, including scholars and Utopian academic Jonathan Flatley — visitors to the Homestead are asked to create “new national dishes.” These culinary concoctions are essentially an edible assemblage from a variety of ingredients, configured to hold aesthetic, gastronomic, or symbolic significance.

Visitors to the Sidewalk Festival enjoy a µTopian Dinner with Hinterlands performers outside the Mobile Homestead (image courtesy of the MOCAD)

“It’s a laboratory to investigate different ways of eating, in order to connect with someone who is different than you,” said Beilby. One could call it a new medium, enabled by the tools of our increasingly interconnected world, or one might consider it the mission of any meal undertaken by people who begin as strangers, and perhaps leave with a better understanding of each other.

uTopian Dinner performances by The Hinterlands will take place on Saturday, August 11 and Sunday, August 12, 2018 at the Dixieland Flea Market, Waterford Township, in the Mike Kelly Mobile Homestead. The Enemy of My Enemy continues in development, and will perhaps debut in 2019.

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