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Aakash Odedra’s stunning talent outshines the show

As Alchemy demonstrates, contemporary South Asian dance artists are turning ancient bharatanatyam and kathak styles on their ears.

David Hou

Sampradaya Dance Creations
Harbourfront Enwave Theatre
Runs Until
Saturday, November 24, 2012

British Indian dancer Aakash Odedra is simply breathtaking. And that's the problem with Alchemy, the new show presented by Sampradaya Dance Creations. Odedra's Rising – Nritta sets the bar so high that what follows has to falter.

Sampradaya artistic director Lata Pada had a good concept in crafting Alchemy. She wanted to show how contemporary Indian dance is evolving from its classical roots. Just as Western choreographers have twisted and bent classical ballet and modern dance technique, so South Asian dance artists have turned ancient bharatanatyam and kathak styles on their ears.

Which brings us back to Odedra. Pada opted to build a show around his four-part solo Rising, adding to the mix group pieces by Indian choreographer Santosh Nair and Canadian Natasha Bakht. On paper, the impressive collection of six dances represents the very new in Indian dance.

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A brilliant dancer such as Odedra can attract the very best. Rising includes pieces by Antwerp-based Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and London-based Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, three top-ranked choreographers in Europe who are all darlings on the international circuit.

The way Pada planned the program was to begin with Odedra's Rising – Nritta, then feature Nair's Stealth and Cherkaoui's Constellation, followed by Maliphant's Cut, Khan's In the Shadow of Man and the world premiere of Bakht's Bridges in the second half.

Rising – Nritta is a masterpiece of speed and virtuosity. Odedra shows off all the showy tricks of kathak, but as if on steroids. His innovative combination of jumps, lunges, spins, foot-stamping, knee rolls and intricate hand gestures pushes kathak technique to the extremes. Odedra's piece is sophisticated stuff.

Nair's Stealth for three men and two women, anchored in the ancient martial art of chhau, holds its own against Odedra. Its slow control is hypnotic: The balancing on one foot forever, the horizontal spins in the air, the cartwheels and somersaults, the erotic by-play between the men and women, all make for a compelling dance.

The solos for Odedra are in part reflective, which slows down the pace of the show. Each choreographer highlights different aspects of the dancer.

For example, Cherkaoui chose Odedra's lyrical side. In Constellation, Odedra is surrounded by many suspended light bulbs. The core of the dance has him executing graceful turns among the lights, like a moon moving among planets. The piece radiates mysterious beauty.

Maliphant worked with lighting designer Michael Hulls to create the fascinating Cut. The stage is criss-crossed by bars of light. As Odedra moves over the stage, only parts of his body are highlighted. What the audience sees is a physicality in the state of disconnect, like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat. The dance is a mad whirl of light and darkness.

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Khan has emphasized the animal inside man. His disturbing choreography is distorted and twisted. Odedra yelps, growls and moans as he puts his body through contortions of agony. In the Shadow of Man is raw, brutal and edgy.

By the time Baht's Bridges rolls around, the audience has seen some sensational dance. Her piece for five woman, anchored in bharatanatyam, explores architecture in space through the bodies of the dancers and includes innovations such as robotic movement. The piece is pleasant, but not in the same league as the other works. It is a whimper of a closer. On another program, Bridges would have fared better.

In retrospect, Odedra's ode to pure dance, Rising – Nritta, should have ended the show. That way, Alchemy could have built to a strong climax. Nonetheless, the show does succeed in showcasing new directions in contemporary Indian dance – as well as music combining traditional Indian percussive beats and singing technique with the drones, pings and gurgles of modern electronica. Indian dance soundtracks are also moving in new directions.

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