Friday, 14 October 2011

time for you to put yourself on

I've spent an unusual amount of time this past month at Sadler's Wells, which is a bit dangerous with an Actionettes show coming up (Night of the Shimmying Dead, October 29 at the Buffalo Bar – come!): I'm prone to feel frustrated by our myriad shortcomings as an amateur group anyway, and watching dance fills me with a painful yearning to over-reach my meagre capacities and push my body to do the unexpected and transcendent. I interviewed Emily Browning recently and tattooed under her arm are some words by Martha Graham, “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching”, culled from this stern yet tremblingly beautiful letter to Agnes de Mille. I'd never encountered the letter before, but oh God do I recognise the unrest, and I don't usually find it that blessed, either.

One of my favourite things about watching dance is trying to figure out what emotion or story is being communicated: I'm too much of a cheapskate to buy programmes, and maybe I prefer the thrill of the interpretative chase. At Tezuka, the impossibly sweet new piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, all the exposition you'd find in a programme was delivered from the stage: potted histories of Japan and the atomic fallout, of Osamu Tezuka's youth and politics, of the radicalism of manga and the philosophical import of his characters. For reviewers, most of whom were a bit sniffy about the show, this was one of its umpteen drawbacks, but I loved the earnest, burbling quality of these verbal interpolations, the fanboy flood of information. I loved, too, the way it shifted constantly: one moment it was childish, showing us a boy rolling around with excitement reading his manga book, or a paper robot-monster stomping up the stage; then darkly, erotically adult, especially in the grappling duet between a priest and a half-naked gamin; or serenely abstract, with groups of dancers weaving and curling in exquisite physicalisations of the Japanese script.

If Tezuka was all about inviting you to share an obsession, the Sylvie Guillem show 6000 Miles Away kept its audience somewhat at a distance. Or maybe I just needed to read the programme to understand the thinking behind the knife-sharp, cracklingly tense moves of the first piece, Rearray: without it, the duet felt impressive technically but emotionally cold. I preferred the other piece, Bye, which has Guillem bursting through a white doorway dressed like a frowzy 1950s librarian (one of my favourite looks), escaping to dance and enjoy herself while members of the family arrive one by one to peer at her quizzically. If I'd grasped that the piece is about the daily tug-of-war between self-fulfilment and social responsibility, between art and family commitments, I probably would have watched it through a blur of tears. As is was, I was more gently amused and moved.

The same struggle is explored in Quarantine's Entitled, an absorbingly odd show, playful yet painful. What it deals with, as Lyn points out in her brilliant review, is the chasm between what we think we want out of life and how we feel about what we have. We watch technicians set the stage up and dismantle it again without the “show” ever really happening. Because what is the show? What is it that makes all the humdrum architectural, organisational activity that life requires – the endless cooking of meals and washing of dishes, brushing of teeth and buttoning of coats, paying of bills and dealing with emails – feel worthwhile? There is an extraordinary moment when one of the dancers, Fiona Wright, steps forward and asks us directly: if I haven't had children, is my life worthwhile? I wanted to tell her that “children” are not a simplistic solution to doubt and anxiety and confusion, but a terrifyingly complicated amplification of that doubt and anxiety and confusion. But someone's mobile phone went off and broke the spell. And anyway, I had already done my bit of participation: I'd jumped on stage and tried to learn Sonia Hughes' brilliant routine to Jump to the Beat so I could teach it to the Ettes, once again failing to realise that what my mind wants and what my body can do are not the same thing.

For me, the answer to that worth question is making stuff, although I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to settle on what to make. In that sense, I felt a wistful twinge of jealousy of Akram Khan: if I could devote myself to one thing long enough to make something even a fraction as beautiful as Desh I'd be ecstatic. The piece deals with ethnicity, how we come to terms with who we are and what made us. In an early scene, Khan itches and quivers across the stage, tearing at his skin, trying to remove something embedded there. This is probably a misinterpretation – judging by reviews, he's attempting to negotiate the hustle and bustle of Dhaka – but it looked to me as though Khan was buffeted by and struggling against the Bangladesh that's lodged in his own body. We don't want our parents' country (in my case, Cyprus) itching at our bones; we don't want to deal with this other culture and language and folklore and national pride, all of which seem so alien to us. But that other homeland has been given to us in our genes and one day or another it will assert itself, seeping through our blood to erupt from our mouths and claim our fingers.

Scenes in which Khan argued with his father (whom Khan embodies, adorably, by painting eyes and mouth on to his own bald pate and balancing his forehead on his arm as a chin), then struggled to interest his own daughter in her heritage, felt so familiar to me. As a child I refused to learn Greek; since having children, I hear Greek words spilling out of me – far more with my son than with my daughter, which is frightening, as Cypriot women are dangerously soppy about their sons. Like my parents before me, I want my children to feel this foreignness inside them. I want to fill their heads with other words, with stories of Persephone and Demeter, Orpheus and Narcissus, Aphrodite and Arachne. There is an unspeakably beautiful sequence in Desh in which Khan, narrating a folk tale to his daughter, begins to inhabit it, digital images surrounding him with a forest of bristling trees and fluttering fireflies. If we have to turn into our parents, at least let's do it in a way that feels magical.

Most of the making I do, inevitably, happens in the kitchen, and it's here, too, that I connect most with my heritage. I can't communicate with my grandmother but I can cook like her: fasoulia, koubebkia, magarounia, kofte. A few years ago at my auntie's house in Greece, I tasted her home-made baklava for the first time and it was a revelation: crunchy, sticky, sweet but not sickly. I finally prised the recipe out of her and the two times I've made it myself it's been a small triumph. So here's my auntie Era's recipe, with a few wee tweaks of my own.

Auntie Era's baklava

I use a Pyrex dish, 30x22x5, for this: you take a knife to it, which is why I don't use a metal tin. Pre-heat the oven to 160 or thereabouts – it wants an hour in the oven to become golden, so use whatever temperature will allow it that length of cooking time

filo pastry – I use Jus-Rol, because it's all I can find in Sainsbury's and I'm not yet insane enough to make my own, and need about a packet and a half

butter – roughly 50g – melted

400g nuts – I use 200g pistachios and 200g almonds – roughly chopped

to which you add: 1tsp ground cinnamon; half tsp ground cloves; 2 level tbsp sugar; 1 tbsp dry breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs (I crush up two cream crackers, which seems to do the trick)

Brush some melted butter over the tin, then start layering the filo, brushing butter between each layer – I use about six sheets here. Sprinkle over half of the nuts mixture, then do another four filo-butter layers, sprinkle over the other half of the nuts mixture, then do another six or so filo-butter layers.

Now you have to cut the baklava diagonally, first in one direction, then the other, to make bite-sized diamond-shaped pieces – make sure the knife goes all the way to the bottom of the tin. Push a whole clove into each piece to hold the pastry in place. Sprinkle it all over with water, then bake it for an hour until golden brown.

15 minutes before it comes out of the oven, make the syrup: you need a glass (approx 250ml) of water, and the same glass of sugar, which you put in a saucepan with a stick of cinnamon, three cloves, the rind of half a lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Put it on a medium heat, stir it to dissolve the sugar then boil for at least five but more like 10 minutes.

The very second you pull the baklava out of the oven, pour the syrup over and listen to it sizzle. Leave the syrup to soak in for at least half an hour before tucking in. It will keep for a few days just with a tea-towel to cover it.

Incidentally, as long as you have suitable breadcrumbs/crackers, you can make this vegan by substituting the butter for Stork margarine – I've tried it and couldn't tell the difference.