Walk down a street in any New York neighborhood, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a store or restaurant that wasn’t there a couple of weeks ago. With new businesses supplanting their predecessors, some short-lived and others anchored for decades, a neighborhood that’s a patchwork of the old and new can feel merely like a geographic designation rather than like a place with character.
On August 9, East Village restaurant MáLà Project and renowned percussion group STOMP collaborated for performances that suggest that neighborhood old-timers and newcomers are not always strangers to each other and that the creativity and diversity of the city are alive and well.
STOMP, which has performed its highly acclaimed often visually comedic act of using everyday objects as percussion instruments at the Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue near Saint Marks since 1994, approached MáLà Project, located a block over on First Avenue, with the idea of doing a performance in the restaurant. The idea instantly clicked with owner Amelie Kang who founded the restaurant with Meng Ai after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. “We are both in the East Village and representative of two very different cultures,” she explained. “[W]e both love the idea of finding pleasure in everyday life and building something that is original. We wanted to amplify that idea through this collaboration and I think we accomplished it.” As part of their mutual support for each other, the two are offering discounts to see STOMP’s incredibly entertaining show. See below for details.
A Sichuan málà dry pot restaurant might seem like an unusual venue for a group that began in Edinburgh, Scotland as street performers and is not exactly known for being delicate. But, the troupe whose symbol is a metal trash can lid knows a thing or two about making sounds with any object.
Needing only a short rehearsal before three brief afternoon performances that invoked the cacophony of a bustling Chinese restaurant and the percussive accompaniments of Peking opera, eight performers from STOMP’s New York company were seated as diners at two rival tables of four. One table began tapping chopsticks against cups and plates, and the other responded with their own clinks and clanks as the first table looked on. The friendly game of one-upmanship escalated with hand clapping, table thumping, and people energetically getting out of their seat. Soon, everybody was up stomping their feet, and the rhythmic counterpoint merged into unison. The performance ended with a game of musical chairs — everybody scrambling for seats and one person left standing, exiled to dine alone at a distant table.
Since MáLà Project’s own supply of dinnerware was used, were Kang and Ai worried all the action would turn the restaurant upside down and break everything that could be broken? “We were mentally prepared for minimal damages, and we trusted STOMP would be respectful,” Kang said, perhaps relieved after the performances.
One of STOMP’s touring groups is currently in the middle of a well-received 10-week run at the PLA Theater in Beijing and will head to Macau for two weeks afterwards. While the performances at MáLà Project utilized objects available in the restaurant that are not part of the troupe’s regular arsenal, Cresswell explained that they do not purposely seek to incorporate local objects when performing outside of New York that are available because it would be “patronizing” (we’re indeed thankful that no woks were banged, not even a token one). Instead, STOMP encourages its performers, diverse artists selected from open casting calls, to share their personal “internal rhythms”. STOMP has not yet assembled Chinese performers for a troupe in China, but it has held workshops in China. Encouraged by the good response the workshops have received, Cresswell indicated the possibility of having a company home-grown in China.
Kang too is no stranger to considering possibilities. At a time when New York was becoming over-saturated with Sichuan restaurants, she and Ai wanted to spread knowledge about Sichuan dry pot and were among the first to bring the Chongqing culinary creation to Manhattan. She told The Epoch Times, “There’s nowhere that treats this dish correctly in New York and I miss the flavor too much.” After nearly a year of preparation, MáLà Project opened last year the the day after Christmas. For the two friends, the restaurant was “more like a tangible realization of an idea than a business.”
By insisting on authenticity in what MáLà Project serves (ingredients are sourced directly from China through friends and family), the restaurant offers a true taste of Chinese cuisine and has become a hot spot, drawing hungry New Yorkers and many in the young Chinese community in New York. With its attention to quality and style, it also offers a new impression of Chinese restaurants to those who believe them to be cheap or unfashionable. Kang and Ai are part of a welcome wave of entrepreneurial Chinese with the practical skills, a passion for sharing contemporary Chinese culture, and the ingenuity to engage broader audiences. Kang, who hopes the restaurant can have more events like the collaboration with STOMP, says of setting up shop in the East Village, “I think our vibe fits the neighborhood well — young, energetic, dare to be original. The East Village is such an open-minded area. We feel lucky to be a part of it.”
Promo code MALA495 gets you a $49.50 discount on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday performances.
Promo code MALA595 gets you a $59.50 discount on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday performances.
Both offers are valid through November 20, 2016.
Photos by Andrew Shiue. Videos by Andrew Shiue and Hansi Liao.