This year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival got under way this week with performances of English dancer Aakash Odedra's Inked and Murmur, in a co-presentation with The Dance Centre, but staged at the Playhouse rather than the latter's familiar Davie Street space. I understand this was as much for technical reasons as presumably in hopes of attracting larger audiences (not to mention animating a civic space close to PuSh's new home). However, I'm not sure the new venue best served these two solo pieces. Especially during the dimly lit opening of the first work, Inked, it was hard from my vantage point in the twenty-third row to see Odedra's footwork, though as per the percussive rhythms of kathak, one could certainly hear it. Likewise, in Murmur when Odedra addresses the audience or counts out a bol (a succession of mnemonic syllables used to keep time in Indian classical dancing and music) it was sometimes hard to hear him. These two works, in their focus on cultural and personal identity through non-Western dance forms, and in their combining of movement with other theatrical expressions of storytelling, reminded me of Faustin Linyekula's Le Cargo, which played last year's PuSh Festival; the intimacy and proximity with the audience cultivated through the staging of Le Cargo at The Dance Centre was something I craved last night as I watched Odedra. The Playhouse is a terrific venue for large-scale dance works, as DanceHouse's seasons have consistently proved; but for a solo performer it can look a bit lonely up there.
At the same time, there were many wonderful and visually stunning moments during both of the pieces that make up this double bill. Inked, choreographed for Odedra by Damien Jalet, begins with a two dimensional cut-out silhouette of a human figure illuminated upstage right. Out of this trompe-l'oeil Odedra emerges, his feet rat-a-tatting on the floor as he slowly shifts and shimmies upstage centre in an arc of horizontal light. Eventually he falls to his knees centre stage in front of an ink pot, using its contents to tattoo both of his hands in black. Like magnets, the hands find each other and stay connected as Odedra begins a series of gorgeous arm waves, the fluidity of his upper limbs providing a kinetic contrast to the fixity of his lower ones, which are crossed one inside the other in a classic yoga pose. Thus contorted, Odedra proceeds to move across the stage on his knees, his hands never unclasping. The connection between the marked body and the marking of space becomes even more clear when around the now spilled pot of ink Odedra begins to draw a series of ever-widening circles on the white Marley with two pieces of black chalk, his hands extending above his head and then lowering as he rotates his back across the floor, almost like he's making snow angels. The piece concludes with Odedra, his body now covered in ink, fully vertical, launching himself into a series of faster and faster spins that is one of the signatures of kathak. From the fixed centre of the body, worlds expand and spiral.
Murmur, which Odedra has created in collaboration with the choreographer Lewis Major and the video developers Ars Electronica Futurelab, takes as its starting point the dancer's discovery, at age 21, that he is dyslexic. As he tells us at one point, with reference to his passport, how could he have lived so long not knowing that there were two "a's" at the beginning of his first name? The supplement to identity that is signalled by that extra letter is visually materialized for us when Odedra forms two capital A's with sheer white fabric on the stage floor, the ghostly ephemerality of the one's mirror image of the other encapsulated as much by the transparency of the fabric as by the ease with which Odedra later bundles up and wipes the letters away. Earlier these sheets had been suspended from the rafters, sheer scrims behind which Odedra had danced as projections tracked the outline left by his body in the manner of heat-detecting sensors. The piece concludes with Odedra dancing in a whirl of papers that have also descended from the rafters, but that are simultaneously being blown skyward by a series of fans encircling the stage. If, drawing from the first piece, Odedra's body is the inkwell, then these are the blank pages of creative inspiration and self-expression that at once await and already bear his imprint.