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Interview with Aakash Odedra

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Funda Özokçu: In Rising, your body becomes a vehicle, a locus for distinct aesthetic approaches and choreographic processes. Joining forces with three well-known contemporary choreographers, what questions are you exploring with this work? What did they demand of you and what did you demand of them? How was the process of working?

Aakash Odedra: As I was working with the three choreographers we were not necessarily exploring questions. They had some ideas they wanted to explore, and for much of it, they wanted to work out how my body worked, a South Asian classically trained body. Much of what I wanted to do when they were creating was to understand their process. I was learning by doing and watching. I didn’t train formally in contemporary dance, so I guess it was an attempt to learn a trade, a very hands on approach I think. I think what they demanded of me was to look at my dance beyond the realm of South Asian dance. I wanted to understand how my language could be used to say new things.

Funda Özokçu: In Rising, we see different streams go through the texture of your body… Four pieces including your Kathak performance Nritta are evocative of animal and human, heaven and earth, childhood and growing up, stillness and swiftness.. In that sense, all the time it is about contradictions and about part and whole in a contemporary framework. On the other hand, Kathak as the classical Indian dance form is about the philosophies and history of Indian culture but it also directly relates to this heritage through an idea about performance and how to perform. How do you relate to the tension between Kathak and the contemporary? In which ways is your performance related to the traditional and the contemporary?

Aakash Odedra: I think of the three ‘contemporary’ pieces, Akram’s was the most challenging for me. I think in part, he knows me most, so he was pushing me to move beyond what I knew. Ironically, he is a Kathak dancer. So for me, he still uses the narrative style even though he is making me move very very differently. For Larbi, he made me do most work on the floor. This is where I have the least experience, but also felt that there was a thread of narrative in the piece, so I could relate to it from my Kathak. Russell used my body in the way I used it most. But his work was the most abstract, and his interacting with Michael Hulls was wonderful to watch. My Kathak piece Nritta, is just technical. In fact Nritta the word itself translates to mean technical form of dance.

I don’t think there is a tension in these works between Kathak and contemporary. Myself and the choreographers did not approach Kathak in a way which suggests it remains classical. It’s like writing a song with a foreign language with some, but with a person who understands melody they can make a song with any language. These choreographers can do that with kathak.

Funda Özokçu: You were originally trained in Kathak adding to that a range dance styles including Bharat Natyam, Indo-Jazz and Contemporary.  Where did the need arise to do contemporary? What are your plans for the future?

Aakash Odedra: I don’t think there was a plan to do contemporary dance. I think it happened in England classical Indian dancers sit more in the subsidised dance world not commercial dance. So therefore I became exposed to contemporary dance. I enjoyed watching it, and got into it more. I think it’s a more comfortable world than the entertainment world I was exposed to when I did my Indo-Jazz work in India. I think Contemporary dance is a real direction for me, and I will be doing some R&D in coming months to see how I develop as a dancer and choreographer. I think all this play time in the studio is tentative, so not sure what ‘next’ project this could lead to yet, but hope to know by the end of the year.

Funda Özokçu: In Istanbul, you are performing at iDANS Festival, which is taking the Silk Road as a metaphor this year to draw attention to the migration and syncretism of diverse movement styles and expressions between the East and West in the context of contemporary performance. What can you say of such cross-pollination at the base of movement forms especially with respect to the classical dances you were trained at? Could Kathak be a vibrant example of that, drawing both from Sufism and Hinduism? Are there also political, aesthetic etc. points you would like to raise through your peculiar approach to Kathak and Bharata Natyam?

Aakash Odedra: I am personally in England as a result of the fall in the British Empire. My parents came from East Africa, a British colony where many Indian had settled in late 19th-century and early 20th-century. Yet we remain very Indian, despite being ‘away’ from India for 110 years. I think though now, globalisation and instant access to information are equally key drivers of change in change. I think naturally where you grow up and what time you grow up influences the way people move. There are trends. I expect that young dancers in England learning Kathak could equally be good at street dance or salsa, because culturally they are exposed to it. Classical Indian dancers have to make their work relevant to theatres now, it has moved away from courts and temples years ago. If my languages of Kathak and Bharat Natyam can not be extended to tell stories, political or otherwise, relevant to today, then effectively they are dead languages. I don’t think they are though. We see lots of good examples of how choreographers are using Classical Indian dance to say new things. It’s an exciting place to be.

Funda Özokçu: How do you think your performances are received in different contexts such as India and Europe?

Aakash Odedra: I am yet to perform contemporary work in India, but I will be this November. My classical dance in India has been received well I think. It is always a relief since India has a very critical classical dance audience, and of course some iconic figures. In Europe so far my work has been received well, and this is important for your first work as it offers some confidence, though there is now added pressure of keeping it up.

Funda Özokçu: How do you see the relations between traditional dance forms and contemporary dance scene in the UK and Europe? How was it possible for you to combine the two scenes and networks?

Aakash Odedra:I think traditional dance forms anywhere are those which the general public will send their little boys and girls off to learn.Contemporary dance is something which usually comes later. But there is tension between the two only where some practitioners who sit very heavily in their own camp, be it classical or contemporary. But most people sit somewhere in the middle and can see the benefits of both distinct forms and its mongrel form(s). I think I have to stick to my job, I am performer, not a strategist. So my way of contributing to the dialogue and the scenes is by making and presenting the work.

Funda Özokçu: Your background and creative labour shows sequences of commissions, workshops, collaborations and travelling to live and learn in India, the US and other parts of the world. What was the significance of this way of learning and creating for you? Are there advantages and disadvantages of this kind of working? Has it become the rule for contemporary artists?

Aakash Odedra: I mentioned earlier that we are influenced in movement by where we are and the times we grow up in. By travelling and learning you get to see how different people move, and why they do. I think I am naturally curious about this. The disadvantage of course is the cost!. I don’t think there is a rule for contemporary dancers. We are all a little bit a law unto ourselves, which is why the scene is so interesting and we’re all very different.

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