Aakash Odedra: “I think each person physically has the power to change something.”

Choreographer and performer Aakash Odedra’s first company work #JeSuis is a powerful physical exploration of oppression in all its guises. Inspired by a group of Turkish dancers and their collective responses to the widespread misinterpretations of their country, #JeSuis won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2017. We spoke to Aakash to find out more about this extraordinary political work.

What inspired you to create #JeSuis?
Social media plays such a big role in people’s lives. In the beginning, it felt like a great tool to be able to voice your opinions, but now social media has become the block. You hashtag something and it’s out there and you think the job’s done, and that’s it. It’s also interesting what gets highlighted. If it’s in Paris or in America, it’s news everywhere. But if it’s in Sudan or Kashmir it’s not as important. So how important is a story, and is hashtagging it really going to resolve it? I felt like I had to action something in person and through people; I think it’s through interaction that a sense of humanity emerges.

People watch things on a screen and they become numb to it. I feel when people see something in real time, in the moment, it gives them a chance to think. I want to make people think, and also to make them act. I think each person physically has the power to change something.

I first went to Istanbul in 2012. I was teaching a workshop in a university, a phrase that I always teach, but the dancers started doing it better than me, so I started to doubt myself. It was really interesting. There was also something about the city that drew me in. I felt very connected to it. And the students stayed in the back of my mind.

There was this boy in particular who I thought was very good, so a year later I mailed the university and said I’d like to work with him. I told them I’d come to the university and they said ‘fine, what’s your fee – and if the university can’t afford your fees, we as the teachers will put it in from our own pockets.’ That really hit me and I just said forget the fees, I’m coming. I spent two weeks there. I was scheduled for two hours a day but all the dancers gave me 15 hours a day of their own time to dance. And it was 110% every time. There was a sense of passion and desperation, and it was this sense of desperation that I wanted to explore. I started to learn about their stories, and what’s going on around them in their political climate. I got intrigued, and I said that if I ever made a group work, I would work with them.

#JeSuis explores timely political issues such as oppression, displacement and the role of the media, and it was awarded the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award last year. How important is it for you as an artist, to create work that responds to contemporary issues – and how do you tackle these themes through dance?
I feel like the piece starts in an era – in the 1920s or WWI – and then moves on. There’s a sense of repetition: war is not new. Displacement isn’t new. My family was displaced. Their family was displaced. But there is something in this repeating cycle that I really wanted to explore – this sense of a rising up against oppression. And oppression comes in many forms. There was this interesting picture I saw, a cartoon sketch of a woman in a bikini, and a woman in a burqa. And they both say, ‘This is my freedom’. So freedom has many parts, not what we’re used to.

In Indian classical dance we have angika which is the body, vachika which is the oral way of communicating, and kathak which is a blend of both. So I felt like the natural route for me to go down was a physical theatre dance route. I didn’t want to limit the language, I wanted to make sure that if my mother came to watch it she could understand it. And I wanted it to appeal to people, because it’s a people’s piece. That’s why I’ve chosen dancers who have a sense of voice through their movement, through their being and through their experience.

Do you see dance as a form of activism?
I think just living in this day and age is a form of activism. I suppose as an artist, if you’re affected by something, your medium is your medium and that’s what speaks. The important thing is that it’s not just my piece, I believe it’s our piece. It’s a story of them which I relate to us and then it becomes universal.

#JeSuis is performed by seven Turkish dancers who you first met in 2012 while running a workshop in Istanbul. How collaborative was the making process?
We all know each other so well it’s unbelievable. There’s no nine to five. They would call me at three in the morning, saying ‘Aakash, what are you doing?’ and I’d say ‘I can’t sleep, it just doesn’t feel right’, ‘neither can we, come over’. So at three in the morning, we would sit there, after they’ve done a full day of work, and brainstorm. We’d ask each other, why isn’t this working? That’s the commitment they had to their story, to my story, to our story.

All the dancers are contemporary trained, and I’m not. Orally we speak different languages, but also physically we spoke different languages, which was interesting because we had to use dance and theatre and movement to bridge that connection between us. For me it was almost a therapy, to learn how to communicate with people without words.

How did it feel to be awarded the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award?
I was surprised – I wasn’t there, the Turkish guys went to collect the award and it was only the work in progress. I had a week to put the whole thing together and it felt like a lot of chaos, but when we got the award it felt like, ok, it can’t be that bad. There must be something there. That was very special and important for all of us. It told us, keep going.

What would you like audiences to take away from this work?
If I can make one person question their role in life, then I feel like there’s a job done. If there’s an auditorium full of 1000 people and even one person decides that they want to do something, that’s what’s important for me.

#JeSuis comes to the Lilian Baylis Studio on 7 & 8 November. Tickets are £17*. To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

*Transaction fee applies. Max £3.