• 'Until the Lions'. Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
    'Until the Lions'. Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan Company: Until the Lions

Dunstan Playhouse. 22 September

Eisa Jocson: Macho Dancer
Nexus Arts, 21 September

Darlane Litaay and Tian Rotteveel: Specific Places Need Specific Dances
Nexus Arts, 27 September

Aakash Odedra: Rising
Dunstan Playhouse, 6 October

This years’ Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival officially opened with Until the Lions, Akram Khan’s exploration of one of the sub-plots of The Mahabharata, the Indian epic in which he made his debut as a child performer. Khan’s version, based on poet Karthika Nair’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, re-imagines the story of the Princess Amba, who in the original is abducted by the warrior Bheeshma as intended bride for his brother; although she regains her freedom, she is spurned by society as ‘spoiled goods.’ In Nair and Khan’s version, Amba vows revenge, and with Lord Shiva’s intervention is reborn as a male warrior who kills Bheeshma.

The set, a horizontal slice of a giant tree trunk that splits as the narrative comes to a climax, spewing smoke from its fissures, and Michaels Hulls’s terrific lighting, focus the action effectively. The three dancers are accompanied by four musicians who sing and play drums and string instruments. Indonesian dancer Rianto — seen in last year’s OzAsia performing solo — takes over Khan’s own role as Bheeshma, with Ching-Ying Chien as Amba, Joy Alpuerto Ritter as her reincarnation Shikhandi. All three were magnificent in Khan’s compelling choreographic melange of Kathak and contemporary dance. Percussive foot stamping, darting changes of direction, and fantastically complex hand moves are arrested into abrupt stillness, and caresses erupt into aggression. Occasionally I was not quite sure I was following the intricacies of the narrative, but this was nonetheless a riveting interrogation of the gender politics of one of the sub-continent’s great epics.

Aakash Odedra in 'Rising'. Photo: Chris Nash.
Aakash Odedra in 'Rising'. Photo: Chris Nash.

Also compelling was Eisa Jocson’s solo Macho Dancing, a gender-bending version of a style of Philippine nightclub performance usually practised by young men for both male and female "clients". As this would suggest, this is a highly erotic form of dance, and features semi-nudity and explicitly sexual material. Jocson first appears standing beside the stage, around which the audience is seated in a U-formation. Clad in tight shorts with a studded leather belt, black singlet and cowboy boots, she stands nonchalantly chewing gum in the semi-darkness. As dry ice spits forth its vapours, she ascends the stage and stomps, grinds and thrusts her way through a range of pop songs, her long black hair swinging to and fro, contrasting with the macho moves she makes. Eventually, after removing her singlet and inserting a cod piece into her shorts, she ramps up the machismo, flexing her muscles and adopting provocative poses, dripping with sweat all the while. A slow walk among the audience, during which she makes prolonged eye contact, should have ended the performance, but she ascends the stage once more before making a slow retreat into the swirling dry ice. Although slightly over-long, Macho Dancer is a powerful appropriation of a male form by a female dancer.

Darlane Litaay and Tian Rotteveel’s Specific Places Need Specific Dances, on the other hand, was disappointing. Billed as "an intimate exchange between two men seeking to know more about each other’s cultures", it features two performers, a Papuan dancer (Litaay) and a German (Rotteveel). The audience is seated around a large rectangular white dance floor, and as we settle into our seats the performers move a couple of mobile video screens around the space, showing various village scenes. The performance proper seems to begin with each of them filming the other with their phones as they perform dance moves in various styles, from a parody of ballet to Asian temple moves to slow motion bopping. At the performance viewed the music from the phones was barely audible, as was their conversation. This made it hard to engage with the performance, although the audio level improved when one dancer (Rotteveel) started up a pounding soundtrack on a moveable console.

The pair then paint their faces, strip off their clothes and don penis sheaths, which seems to be the main point of the show. Both move around the space and shake their booty, but there is very little actual dancing. It ends with the German dancer reading — again, semi–audibly — a letter explaining the performance: such a need to justify the work underscores both how underdeveloped it is and how difficult it is to understand its inclusion in the festival.

By way of contrast, Aakash Odedra’s Rising, which comprises four solo works made for him by heavyweight choreographers Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as well as a work by Odedra himself, is marvellous. Odedra is a British dancer of Indian descent, trained in the Kathak and Bharat Natyam styles, and endowed with an almost preternatural technique and range. His own work, Nritta, is in the Kathak style, and his nimble footwork, rapid turns and abrupt changes of direction, coupled with intricate arm and hand movements, are a joyous delight.

This is followed by Akram Khan’s In the Shadow of Man, which explores the animal within the human. Stunningly lit by Michael Hulls, the work opens with Odedra crouching in a beam of light, his back exposed and his protruding shoulder blades undulating uncannily. Never standing upright, he assumes a variety of animal like moves, sometimes head-butting the light like a stag, at other writhing like a snake, letting out occasional yelps, barks and howls, all the while his face obscured. This is a mesmerising work.

In Maliphant’s Cut Hulls's lighting again plays a pivotal role. Initially a thin band of white light marks the front of the stage, and we only see parts of Odedra’s body as they are inserted into the light; later a cone of light extends to the back of the stage in which Odedra turns like a whirling Dervish at incredible speed, his flailing arms becoming a blur.

The final piece, Cherkaoui’s Constellation is more meditative and lyrical. Clad in a white tunic and pants, Odedra plays with floating light bulbs that he swings through the space, hovering and swirling in rapid turns interspersed with more gestural moves. This is a brilliant program of solos performed by an immensely talented performer.

All in all, this is another impressive program from director Joseph Mitchell, demonstrating the richness and variety of both traditional and contemporary Asian dance.

Maggie Tonkin




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