‘Samsara’ is inspired by Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’

 ‘Samsara’ is inspired by Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’

Recently dance lovers in Europe experienced a breathtaking production called Samsara by two dynamic artists Aakash Odedra from UK and Hu Shenyuan from China. Samsara, is inspired by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, and traces the steps we take, both forward and backward, in search of our Higher Self. Drawing on thinking and imagery at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, it explores some of the 81 obstacles and six states of mind that can hold us back. Epic mythological storytelling merges with personal experience and anecdote from two globally opposite perspectives, in a highly visual landscape. I spoke with Aakash after his show and this is what he had to say:

Tell me a bit about your dance background and training?
I founded Aakash Odedra Company in Leicester, London, UK in 2011 along with my friend Anand Bhatt. I am the artistic director of the company, I was born in Birmingham, I trained in Bharatanatyam and Kathak, then moved to India as a student of the renowned Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar. This was the start of my relationship with Shiamak Davar International which culminated in the dance classes here in UK. We now teach to over 600 participants. I am fortunate that I am a globally recognised and award-winning artist, I have performed for over 300 full length performances in 40 countries. In 2018 we became part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio. As a not-for-profit organisation we are governed by a voluntary board of trustees and any surplus funds from our work are invested directly back into our mission of creating a happier and healthier society through dance and the arts.

How did the idea of Samsara show come about?
We were inspired by the novel Journey to the West which is a Chinese epic, but more than the novel we were inspired by the journey and courage of the actual monk (the historical figure) who did an arduous journey that spanned 14 years to reach India to retrieve original Buddhist text, before the monk made the journey it was said that 54 monks attempted the journey but never succeeded. So a thought entered my mind, was it the same monk life after life attempting to reach his destination? It gave me images in my mind of footprints in sand and the monk looking at these footprints and feeling as though they are familiar, his eyes scan the land that is unfamiliar yet very familiar. Also was equally intriguing was the iconography of Buddha, as the image travels in to China, Japan, etc. the shape of the eyes of the Buddha icons shifts it becomes more East Asian, it was interesting how we have to see “God” in our image.

Samsara by Aakash Odedra Company, Dancers Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan, photo by Nirvair Singh Rai

How did the collaboration with Chinese dancer Hu Shenyuan work?
For Hu Shenyuan, dancing is more than a profession, it is a way of life. He won the TV talent show Dance Smash in 2019 and has staged critically acclaimed productions worldwide with his company Hu-Hu Dance. In 2020, he received a nomination at the New York Dance and Performance Awards for his performance in Yang Liping’s ballet Under Siege. We share the same vision, we played around for three years and allowed the interaction to find the connectivity, we met every few months sometimes in China sometime in the UK. I wanted the work to speak to a global audience, I did not want it to be bound by demographics or geography, so our collaborators pallet was quite colourful so that each component can add its own colour to the canvas.

What has been the response of the show?
We still are getting out of pandemic zone so it has been a touch and go story for Samsara, five years in waiting and finally we got to share this now five-year-old baby with the world and it was well worth the wait as people have been moved emotionally by it. The work has gained great critical acclaim with 5 and 4-star reviews from all major main house theatres across the UK.

Samsara by Aakash Odedra Company, Dancers Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan, photo by Nirvair Singh Rai

How difficult was it to put up an independent production?
I have been really blessed to work with some of the best people within our field, but with that comes responsibility towards the people one is working with, in the case of Samsara I had no sleep my brain was switched on 24 hours a day, it felt quite petrifying but I had to remind myself and say “Aakash it is time to trust your process and your instinct” and I am glad I did , which actually was really tough, it was tough to let go of other people’s ideas and allow your own seeds to sprout and grow

It was two of you performing but the production was big isn’t it?
Yes, Hu Shenyuan and me choreographed and performed on stage but the help we got from the team was tremendous. The show was produced by Anand Bhatt, Music Composer was Nicki Wells, Costumes by K H Lee, Dramaturg by Lou Cope, Lighting Designer was Yaron Abulafia, Set Designer was Tina Tzoka, our rehearsal director was Sadé Alleyne, Movement Director was
Cheng-An Wu and Melissa Ugolini, Technical Director was Salvatore Scollo. The production was commissioned by Bagri Foundation, Co-producing/commissioning partners of Samsara: Asia TOPA; Arts Centre Melbourne; Birmingham Hippodrome; Curve Leicester; the Royal Ballet; Shanghai International Dance Centre, Chaillot – National theatre for dance, Paris. Supporting partners of Samsara: British Council; Jacob’s Pillow; Peacock Contemporary Dance Company (Kunming, China); Playking Foundation; Sidney Myer Fund; Victoria Government. So I have a huge list of people and organisations to thank.

What are your future plans for Samsara?
I would love to share Samsara with India! more than a plan it is a dream, and I have always allowed myself to dream, so all I can say is my future plan is to keep dreaming and making my dreams come true.

Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacifica University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder, a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored with three National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]


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