Aakash Odedra's contemporary dance performance evokes ancient Indian traditions 

Phoenix Rising

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"It's like breathing for me," says Aakash Odedra of dancing. Odedra is calling from a train in the U.K., and before our chat, we've been watching clips of the contemporary dancer on an endless loop. His arms and legs are both a part of and separate from his body, his hands create shapes out of nothing. The movements are fluid, sharp, and familiar all at once — of course, this is like breathing for him.

"I always reacted to music," says Odedra. "I expressed myself through dance, if I was happy or sad. If I was picking up a glass, I couldn't just be picking up a glass. It had to be choreographed."

Raised by his grandmother, Odedra, who is of Indian descent, often heard stories of Indian mythology growing up. "Men were prolific dancers," he explains. He is being genuinely casual when he off-handedly talks about ancient Indian warriors who knew, instinctively, how to dance. It makes sense to him. It's just breathing.

Trained in the classical Indian dance styles of Kathak and Bharat Natyam, which originated in temples in India, Odedra constantly combines past and present in his performances. One of eight forms of classical Indian dance, Kathak originated with nomadic bands of people from ancient northern India, known as Kathakers — storytellers. Bharat Natyam (also written Bharatanatyam), hails from Southern India and was first referenced as a style of dance in the early 16th century.

It is with these ancient forms as a foundation that Odedra embarks on all of his contemporary pieces. Rising, a performance that Odedra debuted in 2011, is a collaboration among four choreographers, himself included. The first official performance of the Aakash Odedra company, a dance troupe Odedra founded as an outlet where he could commission solos and develop his own work, Rising is comprised of four parts. The titles and corresponding themes for these parts are: Nritta (which means pure dance), In the Shadow of Man, Cut, and Constellation.

Odedra describes dancing to someone else's choreography as becoming "less of a dancer and more of an actor." He continues, "You physically shift yourself to the needs of the choreographer." In Cut, for example, Odedra must respond to changes in lighting. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant with lighting by Michael Hulls, Cut creates flow and form through lighting highlights and cuts.

"People's attention span is very short. They're off to switch to another TV program," says Odedra. He believes that the aesthetics of a performance can capture an audience's attention. "It [the visual aspects] acts as the narrator. The architecture of the stage is very, very important."

But the stage setting isn't the only important aspect of Odedra's performance — according to him each aspect of dancing is equally valuable. "The dance and music shouldn't overpower one another," he says, adding that the dancer is trying to create a balance onstage.

Could it be difficult, then, to convey everything Odedra needs to say as a single dancer?

"I used to passionately hate solos," says Odedra. "I used to find it lonely." But after a successful 2009 solo show, curated by Akram Khan, Odedra began to perform solo dances more frequently. Khan, who served as Odedra's mentor, is also a contemporary dancer who was originally trained in Kathak. The Akram Khan Dance Company, a participant in 2012's Olympic opening ceremonies, describes itself as one of the "foremost innovative dance companies in the world."

Ever since his work with Khan, Odedra has embraced the spirit of collaboration. "It's about being able to be lost," says Odedra of throwing himself into choreography created by others. "You find a part of yourself you didn't know existed."

The second part of Rising, In the Shadow of Man, choreographed by Khan, seeks to answer a question, "Are we becoming more 'human' over time, or are we becoming more like 'animals'?" In a description of the choreography, Khan writes, "Kathak masters have so often used animals as forms of inspiration, even to the point of creating a whole repertoire based on the qualities, movements, and rhythms of certain animals. So, in this journey with Aakash, I was fascinated to discover if there was an animal residing deep within the shadow of his own body."

Rising begins with Nritta, choreographed by Odedra. Nritta is divided into the masculine and feminine — the gods Shiva and Parvati, representing vigorous dance and circular seduction, respectively. In this piece Odedra spins in endless circles of ecstasy, becoming soft and strong with each turn of his body. After years of dancing, he doesn't think twice about Rising, and about its four separate pieces — the four separate people he must become. He explains it quite simply, "You have to be able to empty yourself."

Aakash Odedra will teach a Master Class: Classic Indian Kathak Dance on Sat. June 4 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Register at spoletousa.org.

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