The clanking of dishes. The sizzle of oil in a pan. The pfft of dough being kneaded by hand.
An exercise in making the complex seem effortless, Served was a symphony for the senses; the performance was elaborate yet organic. Created over the span of two years by Allison Orr and Krissie Marty of the innovative Austin-based company Forklift Danceworks, Served involved more than 50 members of the College’s Dining Services staff. On the surface, the performance was a tour through the College’s kitchens and a chance to meet the teams behind them. Upon further inspection, however, “it is a dance about visibility, dignity and the choreography of community,” as critic Brian Schaefer observed in the ‘Scholar’s Notes’ section of the program.
Upon arriving at Paresky, attendees were greeted with flashy wristbands and rapidly funneled off into one of three tour groups. From there, the production sped up. The tours varied for each group, meaning that each person only got a small glimpse at the totality of the performance. Although initially disappointed that I did not get to see the entirety of the show, I realized that this structure was very intentional; the scale of the Dining Services operation is too large for any one of us to grasp, at least in the span of an hour and a half. By dividing the audience into smaller groups, the directors cleverly provided us with an in-depth understanding of each environment that we visited rather than a superficial glimpse of the whole.
Although I cannot speak for all of the tour groups, mine was an expedition through parts of Paresky both familiar and unfamiliar. Each space extended beyond the mundane and into the realm of theater. By stylizing the repetitive gestures of everyday life, these performances were able to exemplify the grace and art present in these functional daily movements.
Highlights of my tour included a rapid-paced production line in Whitmans’ Dining Hall with a jazzy musical number, a visit to the gelateria where we witnessed the creation of a treat we all know and love and an earnest and elegant mopping duet. The odyssey ended at Lee Snack Bar with a performance that, amidst flashing lights and upbeat music, elevated flipping burgers and sizzling sandwiches to something quite enthralling.
The individual tours all convened in Baxter Hall for a finale which was a sight to behold. With a musical backdrop provided by a student band, the audience was led through a sequence of baking, chopping, cleaning and cooking, with all of these pieces leading up to an extravagant “Buffet En Masse” for the audience to enjoy at the end. One of the moments that struck me the most was a solo performed by Jerry D’Achille, an 82-year-old baker who has been working at the College for 30 years. He precisely and carefully frosted a cake, a testament to his love for his craft that was obvious in each and every rosette he piped. Playing in the background was a prerecorded tape of D’Achille describing his journey from Italy to the United States and ultimately to the College. It felt like a sacred moment in every way, and I was grateful to have witnessed a creation of such care. This feeling was not reserved only for D’Achille’s piece; in fact, every moment of Served seemed to evoke a similar feeling.
Perhaps most importantly, Served created a fully immersive experience which allowed me to not merely observe from afar, but to understand and internalize the magnitude of this work. The job of the Dining Services staff is never wholly finished; many have to be in the kitchens at 4:30 a.m., and in dining halls like Whitmans’, there is the daunting task of feeding some 700 students per meal. What may be even more impressive to some students is the fact that many members of the Dining Services staff have worked at the College for decades.
We tend to be ignorant of these commitments as a community. Nor do we often stop and think about all of the planning that goes into preparing a meal: deciding what to cook, obtaining the ingredients, preparing the raw foods, assembling the courses, setting a table, cleaning dishes and storing food afterwards. This is a process that requires delicacy and precision. In a way, this never-ending cycle of providing nourishment is the utmost act of compassion and love. Served, thus, is a powerful reminder of the beauty present in the quotidian – a beauty that has always been there.