Parramasala is a bigger-than-Ben Hur international contemporary arts festival that takes to the streets of Parramatta annually. Its intention is to celebrate the global influence and impact of Asian arts and cultures. Now in its fourth year, it’s matured to fulfil that mission admirably. And colourfully. Better yet, it embraces sophisticated performances such as Aakash Odedra Company’s Rising, which includes choreography by living legends Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Aakash.
In this case, the “company” is comprised solely of Aakash. And Rising is, indeed, an apt title for this body of works, since Odedra is a rising star, a light on the hill, internationally, in contemporary dance.
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In the first place, he’s distinguished by the depth and breadth of his training, which began in his native India, with Kathak and Bharatnatyam. He continued his exploration of these classical south Asian forms in the UK, but these studies by no means define him: almost as I write, for example, he’s premiering a work on the life and times of James Brown, at the Apollo Theatre, in New York.
But Rising isn’t about the funky, epileptic style of Brown; it’s balletic in its light-footedness and profundity. The first work, Nritta, is choreographed by Aakash, with music arranged by same. Between this and the other pieces, which each have their own distinctive “voices”, one has the sense of a whole new dance language evolving, drawing as much — or more — on Eastern, rather than Western, traditions and aesthetics. In the endeavour, one cannot overestimate, or separate, the intimate nexus between music and movement, or the seminal contributions of lighting designers Michael Hulls and Willy Cessa.
Odedra’s body seems to bend when most would break and nary a creak or crick is evident. He is, dare I say it, an Indian rubber man, as elegantly fluid as a stream burbling over stones; if ever there was poetry in motion, surely, this is it. Nritta is, essentially, a variation on the classicism of Khatak, deviating from the its original martial character, reinventing it as something abstract, focussed on rhythm and pattern. The result is something almost incongruously fine, filigreed and delicate. Odedra’s flexibility and finesse is such we almost cease to be aware of the confines and limitations of the body; it’s transcended to reflect a purity of movement that’s superhuman.
The second piece, In The Shadow Of Man, was choreographed by Akram Khan, with lighting by Michael Hulls and music by Jocelyn Pook. With it, Khan and Odedra remind us, regardless of our arrogant, species-centric tendency to elevate ourselves to a position of dominion, in every sense, over all other earthly beings, we are, at root, animals, driven by crude instincts. Hulls shines muted spots, aligned in a grid, as if truly superior beings were scrutinising us from above. Pook’s music is haunting, while Aakash rises from a folded position to move like Richard III; deformed and awkward, as we all are. As the lights and sound pulsate, Odedra squirms and convulses like a man dragging himself from the primordial slime, using every ounce of strength and determination. He walks like a gorilla; bends and sways like a tree. It is, at once, moving and sobering, with a connection to the Khatak tradition, which often mimics the movement of beasts. In this, more personal journey, Khan and Odedra jointly explore the opportunity for the dancer to discover the creature lurking within.
Cut is Maliphant’s contribution, again lit by Hulls, with music by Andy Cowton. A single beam, as if from an alien spaceship, illuminates the otherwise blacked-out stage. There are striations on the floor. Aakash whirls like a demented dervish to an industrial soundtrack. He seems, at first, tormented, but seeking grace. This work, too has been choreographed with Aakash firmly in mind, incorporating, as it does, the language of both Khatak and Bharatnatyam. He becomes a human gyroscope and the stroboscopic effect of Hulls’ lighting has him whirring like a top in a particle accelerator. Cut seems an apt title for a work that appears chopped-up sonically and visually, making for a kind of digital dance, cut-and-pasted, composed of byte-sized fragments of frenetic motion.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has collaborated with Willi Cessa (lighting) and Olga Wojcieowska (music) on Constellation. Countless incandescent bulbs are suspended, at varying heights, affording a rustic, yet magical impression of the night sky and loneliness of space. But there is warmth and intimacy here, too, in this solar system; this tiny corner of the vast cosmos. The lights sway, emanating a diffuse glow, while Aakash presents a suite of movement that draws on both classical and contemporary traditions; there are even gymnastic manoeuvres redolent of hip-hop. For a moment, he look skyward, as if to contemplate the heavens and his place in them, but spends much of his time in a sequence of contorted postures close to the floor, as if tragically tethered to the mundane. Throughout, Wojcieowska’s piano tinkles sporadically, defying tempo and arresting time, so that we might indulge in all-too-rare rumination on our grain-like status in a sea of cosmic sand. It’s a transcendent; a work in which all creative elements relate and harmonise, making for a music, and movement, of the spheres. I can’t help feeling Cherkaoui is seeking to remind us of Oscar Wilde’s insight that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.
Counterpointing the frantic, anxious pace of Cut with the meditative mood of Constellation is a programmatic plus, too.
The fact that the world’s most renowned choreographers seem to be clamoring to work with Aakash is testimony enough to his proficiency as a dancer. But the proof is always in the pudding, and this is a truly magic one.
The details: Rising played Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.