“Even if you don’t know a lot about dance, that’s really immediate that you can recognize what a spectacular performer he is” (Bill Bragin)

The choreographer of both performances, the acclaimed British dancer Aakash Odedra, has a long-term relationship with NYUAD.  We spoke with Bill Bragin, the executive artistic director of the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, about this collaboration, and prepared our comments on and impressions of the upcoming performances MURMUR 2.0 and #JeSuis.

We chose these works as our TOP PICKS for their artistic excellence and the choice of social and political issues. However, there is more to these pieces than their artistic value: for the first time the works of an international choreographer premiered in the UAE – Murmur 2.0 was the world premiere of an iteration of a previously touring work and #JeSuis was a full world premiere. Also, these works were co-commissioned and co-produced by the UAE institution together with other international cultural players – like Arts Council England, The Place and Sadler’s Wells in London (full list of credits below)  – and the first dance pieces to travel the world and win international awards after premiering in the UAE. 

This all gives them a special place in the history of contemporary dance in the UAE and shows the role NYUAD plays in it. Both performances, presented live on stage at the Arts Center in 2016 and 2018, will be revisited online this week.

About Aakash Odedra 

Aakash Odedra is an award winning contemporary British dancer and choreographer. Born in the UK to the Indian parents, Aakash is trained in classical Indian dance styles Kathak and Bharatanatyam.

Later he added contemporary movement to his vocabulary. Today he incorporates his classical training in a unique synthesis with contemporary dance, both in his choreography and his creations with other choreographers. 

Since his debut solo Rising which featured short works created on him by Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant in 2011, Aakash created numerous of his own choreographies and won international awards.

Murmur 2.0“. Courtesy of The Arts Center at NYUAD.

His relationship with NYUAD (in conversation with Bill Bragin on November 4th, 2020).

Bill first saw Aakash Odedra at TED Talks in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, where the dancer was performing excerpts of his solo work MURMUR, which talks about Aakash’s battle with dyslexia. “I was blown away by the piece and intrigued by the way he uses interactive technology to create metaphors”, remembers Bill. Few months later Bill joined the Arts Center as its artistic director and invited MURMUR to the program for its opening season.  The original performance was revised and the new version with the title MURMUR 2.0 was presented as the Middle Eastern premier in February 2016. 

It was not only the artistic power, but also the subject of dyslexia why Bill wanted to bring the piece to Abu Dhabi. “As I got to the UAE, I realized how much work has been done about autism awareness, neuro-divergence and learning disabilities, and there was a big push to destigmatize autism, but dyslexia was not so much in the conversation.  So I realized that a piece like this could really be used to open up important conversations around neuro-divergence”, says Bill. And it did: there were great Q&A’s after each performance, with parents talking about their dyslexic kids and how they cope with the condition, visits to schools, where Aakash spoke to large groups of students and also had smaller group sessions with students with learning disabilities. “It was about destigmatizing the condition and also inspiring people through the fact that someone so incredibly talented was not held back by dyslexia at all”. 

The next cooperation with the artist was on his piece #JeSuis. This work was originally commissioned by the Arts Center and premiered in the Red Theater in February 2018. When asked about commissioning, Bill explained: “From the beginning, we wanted the Arts Center to be involved in commissioning and supporting artists to move forwards. The special thing about #JeSuis was that it was the first group choreography by Aakash and that he was not dancing in it. That was a big roadstep for him as an artist. We believed in him and wanted to support him in taking this next step”. 

“#JeSuis”. Courtesy of The Arts Center at NYUAD.

#JeSuis started as reaction to #JeSuisCharlie movement. The collective emotional support for the tragedy of France raised thoughts in Aakash about whose suffering earns public sympathy and, as Bill put it, “whose tragedies get hashtagged and whose don’t”. He added that it was also a time of Brexit heating up, and Aakash was looking at how the media landscape started using islamophobia as a way to drive Brexit.  For his research, he visited refugee camps in Greece, where he also did some teaching. Then, he met some extraordinary dancers at a workshop in Istanbul and recruited them for his new piece.  In the process of work development, he started taking input from his dancers, as they started bringing in their personal situations in a larger context to what was happening politically in Turkey, and some of those things found their way into the piece. “The creation of this work was a long iterative process,” says Bill.

The last five weeks before the premier the work was developed at the Arts Center at NYUAD as a part of artistic residency. This residency was also the subject of a J-term class at NYUAD: the students – with and without dance background – took dance classes with Aakash, lectures on dance theory, participated in rehearsals and even traveled to a refugee camp in Greece with Aakash. This answered our question about how students of the university benefit from artistic residencies and collaborations. 

Summarizing the overall impact of the performance, Bill said: “By presenting the piece which was provocative esthetically and opening up the important conversations all over the world, we felt that as an organization we took one step forward”. 

Next collaboration and COVID-19 

The Arts Center was looking forward to showing his next work in the current season. When it became clear that due to Covid-19 his new piece could not be presented, the decision was made to use the planned slot in the calendar to revisit the former ones. “We wanted to show that this is the time of the year when a new piece by Aakash would have been here”, explained Bill and added that he hoped to be able to bring a new piece for another season. 

Swipe left to right to see the English or Arabic version of the events poster. Courtesy of The Arts Center at NYUAD.

Our take on MURMUR 2.0 (Live-Screening on November 11, 8pm on our Facebook page

“Even if you don’t know a lot about dance, that’s really immediate that you can recognize what a spectacular performer he is. And the way that he interacts with technology is also really fluid. There are a lot of people who use technology in their work, and it feels like a gimmick, like people showing off and it does not mean much. What I love about this piece of Aakash is that the technology is really expressive and it speaks to and amplifies certain ideas of the work” (Bill Bragin).

Diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, Aakash found conventional education at school very challenging. He felt defined by his learning difficulties, but not his abilities. As written language was so alien, dance became his preferred mode of expression.

Throughout the movement and the image of himself as a prisoner, trapped inside of what it seems to be a small and lonely place, he shares this intimate space with the audience where he struggles, he quits, he searches, he despairs, he falls and he rises over and over again. 

The wonderful use of the body, the movement, and the choreographic blend of classical Indian and contemporary dance, the accurate use of music, silence, sounds and voice, the excellent light design and the precise use of the space along with the tasteful use of technology, make this interdisciplinary piece a swirl of emotions. Murmur 2.0 is a beautiful visual poem where dance and technology are perfectly aligned and play an equal role to express the pieces’s subject. 

Here is the trailer:

“Murmur 2.0” Trailer. Courtesy of Aakash Odedra Company.

*Murmur 2.0 is supported by Arts at Dartington, NYU Abu Dhabi, The Place (London) and generously supported using Lottery Funds through Arts Council England. 

Our take on #JeSuis (Live-Screening on November 12, 8pm on our Facebook page

“The question is whose tragedies get hashtagged and whose don’t” (Bill Bragin)

#JeSuis is an impeccable dance work that addresses crucial contemporary social issues like freedom of speech and movement, oppression, displacement and instability. The “#”in the title already evokes something to be considered, to be tagged, to mention, something important and worth to talk about.

The piece takes us to a rusty, dark and hidden place where a group of dancers portrait the “search of a safer place”.  In #JeSuis all elements and languages brought on stage are used and combined effectively to express the theme. We can perceive a significant presence of choreography and movement, making the choreographed bodies the main vehicle to portrait the neglected issues the choreographer wants to bring the light on.

Emotions of frustration, desperation, impotence, fear, loss, oppression, displacement, as well as the image of the hypocrisy of a happy world, are expressed through a great choreographic composition, an accurate use of scenographic languages –  the sound and the music, the voice, the light and the set design – the wonderful interpretation and the powerful movement of all the dancers.

We can assure you this piece is something you don’t want to miss as a remarkable artistic work that will not leave you indifferent.

Here is the trailer:

“#JeSuis” Trailer. Courtesy of Aakash Odedra Company.

#JeSuis is supported by Lottery Funding from Arts Council England and Paradise is Here.Co-commissioned by The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi; Journeys Festival International; The Movement (a partnership between Birmingham Hippodrome, Sadler’s Wells and The Lowry); Curve; and Contact Theatre, Manchester. Research and development supported by the British Council, Turkey and DanceXchange.

Join us for the online performances

*Both streamed performances will be followed by a live Q&A. Aakash Odedra and members of the company discuss the process and creation of the work. The panel will also answer questions posted by the audience.

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