Walking into Emmett Robinson theater last night, I squinted my eyes against something hazy. A woman in front of me asked an usher if it was just her, or if there was in fact some kind of smoke/fog machine emitting the gauzy air. We weren’t insane — we were just getting initiated into Aakash Odedra’s world. (The fog is a little bothersome if you have sensitive eyes, etc., but come on, y’all, this is art we’re talking about).
Because I’d previously interviewed Odedra, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect. I highly recommend that you read the program before Odedra’s performance; his four dance pieces are titled and briefly described, adding a very helpful context for audiences, especially for those not familiar with contemporary dance styles. Note: I am not familiar with contemporary dance styles.
The first piece, Nritta (meaning pure dance), was pure joy. This dance most clearly displayed Odedra’s background in traditional Indian forms of dance, with music and movements reminiscent of some Bollywood pieces, which isn’t quite on the nose, but if that is your only connection to Indian dance, then it’s helpful.
I had a number of Indian friends in college and I remember one night dancing in an apartment, asking how to move as gracefully as they did. “Act like you’re changing a lightbulb, smile, and bounce on a foot,” they suggested. Odedra didn’t really do this, but I imagined, for a second, that we had something in common. Then he twirled, held out his hands, stomped his feet an impossible amount of times in quick succession ... and the moment passed.
My only complaint about Rising, and it’s not something that can be helped, are the minutes between each dance piece. Odedra needs these to change his outfit, and in one case, for props to be set up. The lights come up and the audience wiggles in their seats. While it is refreshing to hear two viewers ooh and ahh over Odedra’s grace. It's jarring to hear two businessmen talk about how many calls they took that day. I should note that there were a couple of walkouts, which is why this performance didn’t get an A+. I cannot guess why people leave a show, but the very loud music could have been too much for some.
The second piece, In the Shadow of Man, is the most experimental of the four. And by that, of course, I mean bizarre. As you could imagine, this piece explores the animal side of Odedra’s humanity, with movements evocative of breaking through an egg, learning to walk, struggling to survive. These are my interpretations, so do what you will with them.
The lighting is tinted red, and the music is loud. It’s almost too loud, but not quite — loud enough so that it’s inside of your body, which you don’t realize until after it goes away. It’s effective as hell and Odedra, who was just minutes before an almost ephemeral presence, twirling in a white shirt, happy in his stomping feet — is now a beast. He is virile and otherworldly. He is in the shadow of his humanity, arms twirling both violently and effortlessly, suggesting an alternate form, asking what else we can be.
The third piece, Cut, is visually stunning. (I almost clapped my hands and I definitely said, “Wow!”) Cut refers to the cuts of light used in this piece, shining down as triangular slices of bluish-green. Odedra stands behind the light, various body parts slicing through it, hands pushing down on it, body bent down, arms straight out, aligned with it. With just light and his body (a yoga body if there ever was one — those backbends!) Odedra has created a space that is futuristic, and perfectly symmetrical. He moves his arms — the light follows. He is best seen in the light, but his whole body cannot be illuminated at once. He is both in control and powerless.
Several times the light triangles disappear and Odedra is alone on the stage, bright lights showing his whole form. It’s as if he’s saying, “Hey guys, it’s just me, I promise.” He’s then quickly faded into the dark again, pushing the limits of what we can believe is actually before — just one body and some lights.
Rising ends with Constellation, an ambitious piece that involves a number of hanging globes. Odedra walks onto the stage, gently touching each globe, lighting them as he goes. He then stands among them and shakes, almost imperceptibly, his whole body quivering. I like to think that he is taking off into space — Constellation, ya know? — but I have no proof of that interpretation.
He dances through the globes, falling often, as if he’s trying to maneuver a world in which there is no gravity. Yeah, I’m sticking with the space theme. At one point he does a break dancing move, the one where you’re in a low-to-the-ground handstand, legs carefully hannging in the air. Weightless, you might say.
Throughout each dance piece, Odedra pays equal attention to his hands and his feet, and every body part in between. His entire self is thrust into what he is doing — there is no separating one arm from another, just as there is no separating the sound from the movement, the light from the stage. Odedra does, though, pay closer attention to his hands at times. He gazes at them, holding them before him, creating his own invisible globe by cupping them together. It’s as if he is amazed by what he is creating. Or, really, what is creating him.