Samsara

Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan
Aakash Odedra Company and Bagri Foundation
Sadler's Wells

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Samsara, Aakash Odedra, Dancer Credit: Nirvair Singh Rai

Samsara is ravishing dance theatre that builds an imaginary spiritual world through a fierce whirlwind of dance, lighting and live music, liberated from narrative storytelling, allowing pure movement to flow freely between one captivating image after another. It is breathtaking to watch.

As the drama opens, two performers, cloaked in black, emerge from the shadows, slipping in and out of sharp beams of light, shadow puppets in a fable or restless spirits that appear and disappear in a blink, consumed by the black vortex. The staging is instantly gripping. Is this a game? Who are these figures? Are they united or separate forces seeking their own paths?

Production ideas are loosely inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West—the story of a Buddhist monk in the seventh century who travels across Central Asia and India in search of authentic Buddhist texts.

Choreographed and performed by Aakesh Odedra and Hu Shenyuan, Samsara flows between themes of searching, connection and rebirth, using contemporary dance and both artists’ diverse cultural backgrounds as a means of powerful, fluid expressivity to embody such ideas.

Sequences are created by the aggressive, grounding focus of Odedra’s movements (trained in Indian classical dances of Bharatanatyam and Kathak) beautifully mirrored by Chinese folk dancer Hu’s contortionist form, bending into shapes as if he is made of clay.

Even more remarkable is that they neither share a common spoken language nor movement language. Yet the two bodies lean into mimicry, mirroring flicks of wrists, upturned feet, crouching, swirling, then embracing all limbs, moreover contorting two bodies into one shape as they yearn to share movement, regardless of their roots and diverse dance disciplines.

There are many lasting images, but Odedra draped in an orange burnished robe slicing through time and space—a spinning top swirling at high speed—while grains of sand fall from the rafters bathed in a single shaft of light, is an unforgettable one.

As is Odedra upside-down in a headstand, raised crossed legs that become the seat of the legs of Shenyuan, who rests his head on one hand, resembling an ancient sage lost in thought, or a Buddhist sculpture that has been given life. How is this humanly possible? Two bodies become one, in circus-worthy feats of performance.

Live music highlights the intensity and, out of the darkness, musicians loom behind a semi-transparent screen. In Nicki Wells’s phenomenal new composition, guttural singing and sounds reverberate then mix with pulsating drumming and high-arched strings to lengthen out the dancers’ movements in a heady, sonorous blaze of power and emotion.

This is followed by a symphony of sounds that Odedra makes with his feet: a slap, a stamp, that appear singularly powerful on an otherwise soundless stage when the musicians fall silent in reverence.

The staging of sand and metallic statues backed by the duo in playful pursuit do not help to understand a story, but serve to heighten atmosphere alongside the compelling lighting design by Yaron Abulafia, simply introducing spotlit beams that carve the stage into different sections—dark spaces of wonder and revealing pools of light marking out the pace to create a layered universe.

In the final moments of the piece, Shenyuan appears naked only in flesh coloured pants, grabbing his leg upwards towards his head in contortionist proportions, a little showy and balletic. While his astounding flexibility and rippling form is admirable, such a parting image somewhat jolts with the mood and mystery of the rest of the evening.

Yet in the main, Samsara is a beautiful gem as the two performers, both in the height of their artistry, create a dizzying spectacle that transforms the London stage into a game-playing journey of escapism and philosophical discovery both for the performers and the audience.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi