Aakash Odedra’s Inked & Murmur dances into identity issues at PuSh Festival 2016

Aakash Odedra was 21 when he realized his first name began with a double A. The British dance artist was flipping through his passport, something he’d done many times, when it finally clicked into place. And it opened up a whole world of meaning for the dancer, who had lived with dyslexia all his life.

Aakash Odedra in Murmur Sean Goldthorpe photo.

The title Murmur comes from the murmuration of starlings and swallows—the way they fly in flocks that create breathtaking, constantly shifting shapes. That’s a bit like the way Odedra remembers seeing the letters on the blackboard at school, in ever-changing patterns. Working with choreographer Lewis Major, he evokes the idea through projections, with video of the flying birds captured on the paper fragments blown around him by fans. “It has this 3-D effect of swallows flying around you, but also of being engulfed,” he says.

The piece that opens the show, Inked, is a similar exploration of identity for Odedra, but it conjures a completely different world. It, too, was inspired by a specific memory: holding his dying grandmother’s hand. She came from the Rajput warrior caste of India, and he can still see the vivid tattoos emblazoned on her skin against his own clean, smooth hand. He became fascinated with her tattoos, which she received throughout childhood, and the way they came not only to identify her as part of the caste, but also to protect her and other women as a warning that they came from warrior stock.

“I started to think about the reasons people tattoo their bodies: some have it done to them forcefully, some to remember loved ones—it’s every reason under the sun. And then they’re not really permanent because the soul goes on to be something eternal and you leave your body,” he says.
Working with choreographer Damien Jalet, Odedra built a piece where he dances with and around black ink, making marks both on his own body and, toward the end of the piece, in giant, swirling circles and figure eights on a sheet of paper that covers the floor. The repeating circles come to signify the epic cycle of life, and he says that he enters an almost trancelike, transcendent state as he throws himself into the dizzying piece.

“They become like prayers,” he explains of the circling movements. “The best way I can describe it is it’s like knocking on the doorstep of death. Physically, mentally, and spiritually, I have to enter the realm of death to do this piece. But that’s the direction we go toward in all our life: death. And as soon as I enter that space, it’s a different realm, and it’s shedding any ego I have.”

As visually spectacular and hypnotic as it is, the piece becomes a gruelling process to go through.
“By the end I’m covered completely in ink and I have to shower between the two pieces,” he says. “Every time I come off the stage from Inked it’s such a strange feeling.…I realize it’s over and I need to calm down. It takes five to seven minutes to get out of that zone.

“After that, it’s almost like when you have a scar and you put a cream on it: it stings but it helps heal. And Murmur is that healing piece for me.”