#JeSuis

Aakash Odedra
Aakash Odedra Company
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells
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If in doubt that movement language has the capacity to pound out meaningful narrative without relying on text to tell its story, then #JeSuis, Aakash Odedra’s debut choreographic ensemble work, is the piece to prove such power.

Seven dancers from Istanbul inhabit the stage in a horrifying portrayal of violence and oppression under a nameless, faceless state. From the onset, one dancer is hunted down by a jagged shadow and striking visual imagery from stark dramatic lighting by Alessandro Barbieri to a score from Nicki Wells lends palpable fear, while bodily force through brilliantly choreographed movement pull together to battle against the oppressor.

Soon in, a scene of terror is set by a singular electric light on an extended wire yanked around the stage like a dog on a lead sniffing out fear. The light is hoisted overhead hanging above a table, at once the hub of resistance for a community under fire and at the same time the central focus of interrogation. There also lies a dangling microphone in one corner that the dancers line up to shout through but are not heard.

Objects take on meanings. A table is no longer a table, but witness to crimes. A simple light fixture brings clarity and fear to the fore when shined directly into terrified faces. Radio interference to softer melodies creates different rhythms in pace of drama and when the volume is turned up high pitch, dancers shudder as if given electric shocks.

Birmingham-born solo artist Odedra, a classically trained Kathak dancer, conceived the piece following a workshop for contemporary dancers in Istanbul. As he listened to stories about the collective experience of living in a state of emergency and the dancers’ frustration with Turkey’s misrepresentation in the media, #JeSuis came to fruition.

Named after #JeSuisCharlie, following the Paris attacks in 2015, the slogan became one of the most popular news hashtags in Twitter history. Yet, as Odedra argues, “if it had been “Kashmir or Africa no one would have heard of it.”

It’s no easy feat to convey deep felt emotion for the plight of the oppressed through physical theatre, yet Odedra’s choreography is so clear. Ensemble sequences build narrative from the opening stage-lit tableau reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting at its most brutal. Then the minutiae of physical expression from widened terrified eyes, raised eyebrows to the grappling of flesh hunched into groups of dancers gives meaning to movement. Don’t be fooled by improvisational shakes and swings—there is a reason for everything. And all seven of the fiercely trained contemporary dancers execute such movement to perfection.

What works here is a powerfully dramatic arc coursing through the veins of the hour-long piece. As action unfolds through a mix of dance styles from Kathak to contemporary, snapshots of physically upsetting moments appear frighteningly familiar—most likely accumulated through media infiltration etched into our subconscious as well as cinematic representations of war and oppression. There are scenes of rape, interrogation and death as dancers lie down in a huddle rolling to sounds of the rhythmic waves, akin to bodies of immigrants washed up on the shoreline.

One of the most hair-raising moments is when a member of the female cast is wrapped attentively from head to toe in cling film so all that’s left to see is a gaping mouth trying to scream out, while her body wriggles like a fish caught on a hook trying to break free.

Such visceral imagery is disturbing on so many levels. The oppressor is male and physically towering over his female victim. He creeps and crawls up behind her insidiously cupping her mouth suffocating her before layering her with cling film.

Then the rest of the dancers appear onstage with their heads covered in cling film. Maternal instincts kick in. I feel my heart racing and health and safety hazard lights bleeping red alert. How can they breathe? How are they going to pull the layers off? They do of course, and finish the performance.

I’m holding my breath in fear for the dancers and this anticipation is clearly what the choreographer wanted to achieve. The dancers talk about lack of space in their environment and how constricting life can be ongoing terrorist attacks and constantly shifting threats and this scene, more than any other makes fear feel palpable.

As the piece draws to a close, the army guard is met with opposition from the other dancers. They form a community and join forces against him, thus the tide is turned. As the oppressor becomes oppressed, his physical transformation is a feat of genius. His movements turn inwards and he appears to shrink before our very own eyes.

The parting images is one of whirling dervish of movement circles with bodies and hair flying out like sparklers on fireworks night until gradually flames die out and dancers disappear one by one into the hazy smoke until rendered invisible and only an empty black stage remains.

This is powerful drama overwhelmingly focused on the human cost of instability rather than political dogma. Its beauty lies in the message that hope can be found through collective spirit and yet still the piece has yet to be performed in Istanbul, despite the dancers’ origins.

Rachel Nouchi