Every performer knows that on a bare stage there is no place to hide: every movement and word gives away one’s story and identity. As children we believe we could be whoever we want. We have no awareness of what cultural identities are and we are mostly unaware of our skin colour. Then, growing up, we slowly discover that we have limits and that the body is not a neutral place: we are stuck in it, trapped in our own physicality. In his new piece Be Like Water, Hetain Patel, visual artist and now choreographer and performer, questions who we are – are we born as a blank slate, or do we carry our forefathers with us? What if it were possible to transcend that, and how would one do it?

The performance starts with the projector being switched on and the typical signal appearing on the screen. Right afterwards Patel shares with us his childhood dream: despite his Indian heritage it was to be like Bruce Lee, the kung-fu master. What is unusual is that it is the voice of a woman that tells us this, that of the Taiwanese dancer Yuyu Rau, who is translating Patel’s recounting in Chinese. During a residency in China, Patel had a part of his personal history translated into Mandarin and learned by heart. Rau acts as human subtitles with the effect of having him reborn into a Taiwanese female body. On the other side, Rau becomes pure voice as she is stripped of her identity; she is not speaking her own language, nor retelling her own history, nor using her own words to do it.

As the performance continues, we are exposed to Patel’s favourites from popular culture: from Bruce Lee moves and wise neo-Taoist words (“Be like water”) to fighting scenes with the typical balls of energy taken from the video game Street Fighter 2 and elements taken from Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. These are interspersed with sections taken from Patel’s previous works, mostly related to his father and their biological connection. Sequences of “punchy duets” – or rather duels – between Rau and Patel are combined with Patel’s exploration of his resemblance to his father (in It’s Growing On Me, 2008, he grew a beard similar to the one his father wore when emigrating to the UK, and in To Dance Like Your Dad, 2009, he copies his father’s movements while giving a guided tour in his workplace). During the performance, Patel mostly speaks Chinese, relying on Rau’s translations. But she slowly starts to resent her status as a living subtitle, and she manages to subvert the situation, with Patel retelling her story as well. The piece ends with Rau dancing solo to some Western piano music that wanes into a similar tune played on the erhu, a Chinese string instrument similar to a fiddle.

As the title gives away, the fluidity of identity is also recalled by the fluid structure of the performance, which makes a summary very difficult. The performance is a river of images that we navigate in its continuous flow with no visible end or beginning. Patel and Rau ferry us across a series of spaces, emotional rooms that are full of memories. It is to us to determine if they are part of an identity or only recollections of what is thought to be an “I”. The piece is extremely witty and well conceived and the disembodied voice gives rise to absurd situations. Still, nobody is scared about this fragmentation and lack of definition; it is rather a place to be explored. Digital artist Barret Hodgson and the musician Ling Peng (erhu and guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither) weave in and out of the stream of images. The massive technological equipment on stage – five video cameras and a projector – allows for an unusual perspective, and so we are told and shown how a young Patel has been captured on CCTV executing a Bruce Lee move on a dustbin after a pub crawl.

Since the piece draws on material from previous works, it is extremely rich – so much so that Patel has produced an installation work as well, The First Dance – and even if the material is not fully developed, it gives the impression that it has been. It is generally well integrated, with smooth transitions between the scenes and only few instances when the sequencing is obvious. The show is a blending of impressions, memories, emotions, and a reflection on what to do with them: how to perform an identity.

In the fairy-tale atmosphere of the impending Christmas season, it seems easier to come in touch with long-lost childhood dreams, and Patel wants us to take a good look at our nostalgia. Needless to say, I will no longer be ashamed admitting mimicking my favourite heroes when no one is watching.