Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis (European première)

Posted: February 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis (European première)

Aakash Odedra Company, #Je Suis, Patrick Centre, Birmingham, February 16

#Je Suis

Aakash Odedra Company in #Je Suis (photo: Sean Goldthorpe)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I picked up recently a copy of Arundhati Roy’s 2001 polemic The Algebra of Infinite Justice. About the role of the artist in our post-9/11 society she writes: ‘Painters, writers, singers, actors, dancers, film-makers, musicians — they are meant to fly, to push at the frontiers, to worry the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected things, to find magic in places where others never thought to look. If you limit the trajectory of their flight, if you weight their wings with society’s existing notions of morality and responsibility, if you truss them up with preconceived values, you subvert their endeavour.’ Roy’s concern here is the insidious nature of censorship, a form of oppression that is the subject of Aakash Odedra’s new work, #Je Suis, created for the post-hashtag-Charlie age and given its European première at the Patrick Centre in Birmingham. Having met a group of Turkish dancers while teaching in Istanbul, Odedra promised that when he had his own company he would create a work for them. As he writes in the program, ‘#Je Suis began as a conversation with these extraordinary dancers about what it is like to be living in Turkey right now, but quickly grew to occupy a much more universal landscape.’ In its seamless unity of artistic and polemic intentions, #Je Suis suggests a direct lineage from Kurt Joos’s The Green Table — to which there are references — but also from Roy’s ethical thinking in Odedra’s questioning of cultural bias. ‘The piece explores oppression in all its guises, layers and contexts. It acknowledges that some acts of oppression are more loudly heard and deeply felt than others. While #JeSuisCharlie brought solidarity, comfort and solace to a world grieving the horrific attacks in Paris 2015, other equally appalling attacks took place in Kabul and Istanbul, but failed to capture the attention of (social) media in quite the same way.’

The result is a work in which the feral quality of the choreography and the mastery of the dancing match the intensity of its subject. #Je Suis erases the divide so often seen between narrative and framing because these dancers are the subject of both. There is just enough setting — a long table and chairs, a radio, a hanging lamp, a pile of papers, a rubber stamp and a microphone — and costumes (all conceived by Ryan Dawson Laight) to suggest, with Alessandro Barbieri’s dense lighting, a claustrophobic interrogation room that is everywhere and nowhere. The lighting works with the choreography in the way its thick haze can dissolve unnecessary details into the dark or illuminate them when needed. Clearly the creative team, with Nicki Wells as composer and Lou Cope as dramaturg, are all on the same page, but it is the dancing that holds the attention in the space because it gets under the surface of both terror and resistance. As Odedra writes, ‘Notions of oppression are not specific to any time, country or religion. Sometimes the oppressor is a political figure, sometimes a culture or sometimes a friend; and sometimes, of course, it is inside us: our fear, cowardice, expectation and doubt.’ In their shifting relationship to each other the seven dancers invoke the ambiguity in these forms of oppression with an intensity and fluidity that blasts through the fourth wall and buries their emotional generosity in our hearts and minds, reminding us not of a specific narrative but of a disturbingly pervasive and volatile phenomenon.

#Je Suis is constructed on an appeal to apparent contradictions — the freedom of expression to convey a state of oppression is central — and the dual symbolism of physical language and of everyday objects. Animal gesture becomes an expression of both domination and subservience and virtuosity is the pitch of both. The radio set becomes, in white-gloved hands, a puppet that is either a source of solidarity or the voice of authority; the lamp is both instrument of illumination and of interrogation, and the headpieces of wrapped plastic hint at the facelessness of oppression while protecting specific identity. This thread of duality maintains a tension in the work that the dancers weave into a rich fabric of experience enhanced by their humility of approach. They do not set out to change the world, nor to propagandize, but to express their life in all its fullness from a perspective of freedom and its absence. Odedra dedicates #Je Suis ‘to all people whose stories and plights have not yet been “hashtagged”…It comes from the belief that the strength of the collective, and our ability to speak out and together, will see us through to brighter times.’

In short, #Je Suis is both vital and unforgettable.


Preview performances of #Je Suis at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2017.