Aakash Odedra: ‘The world outside didn’t match my world within – dance was a saviour’

Show caption A dancer of quicksilver speed and gracefully light touch … Aakash Odedra. Photograph: Sean Goldthorpe Edinburgh festival 2022 Aakash Odedra: ‘The world outside didn’t match my world within – dance was a saviour’ The co-creator of Samsara recalls leaving Birmingham for India aged 15 in pursuit of his dreams – and how he met fellow dancer Hu Shenyuan, on a similar quest from China Lyndsey Winship Thu 11 Aug 2022 11.35 BST Share on Facebook

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When Aakash Odedra was 15, he left his home in Birmingham and set out on his own for India, not knowing where he was heading, only that he had to go. “It’s weird now I think about it,” says Odedra. “My son’s 15 and he’s been umming and ahhing about whether to get the train from Birmingham to Leicester.”

Odedra’s childhood, however, was different to his son’s. “I come from a very complex background,” he says. He moved constantly, living in 26 houses and going to nine schools. “I was raised by my grandmother. My mum and dad were, short version, doing their own thing.” He grew up knowing drug dealers and sex workers and mentions someone committing a murder. He would look out of the window of the flat he shared with his grandmother in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and see rubbish on grey streets.

“I’d think the world outside doesn’t match the world within me. So I wanted to find a place where I could create a world that exists here,” he says, tapping his temple. For Odedra, the world he found was dancing. He trained in the classical Indian forms kathak and bharatanatyam. “That was my only saviour,” he says. “Dance was my god. It was my validation and my strength.”

‘He was my mirror, and I was his mirror’ … Hu Shenyuan and Aakash Odedra in Samsara. Photograph: Nirvair Singh Rai

Now 38, Odedra launched his own company in 2011, blending his classical training with contemporary dance and theatre in productions such as Rising, which included choreography by Akram Khan; Murmur, inspired by his dyslexia; and #JeSuis, reflecting on political and social oppression. He’s a dancer of quicksilver speed and gracefully light touch, his hands full of fine detail – they dance even as he talks, tracing flowing calligraphy in the air.

A few years after teenage Odedra travelled to India, thousands of miles away another 15-year-old set out on his own journey. The Chinese dancer Hu Shenyuan left home and travelled 36 hours from his village to Beijing, landing on the doorstep of a dance school. When the pair met several years ago, they instantly felt like they knew each other. “I still remember the door opening and us looking at each other, and we always say we’re like one soul split in two,” says Odedra. They have drawn on their shared stories and journeys to create a work together, Samsara, which they’re performing at the Edinburgh international festival. It’s based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (the west in this case being India), telling the tale of a 7th-century monk seeking Buddhist teachings.

‘I come from a very complex background’ … Aakash Odedra appearing last year at Curve Leicester. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

The dancers use a translator but mostly communicate “just through movement, or just the eyes”, or not even that. “There’s a sense of not having to speak about anything, yet knowing everything,” says Odedra. The fact they couldn’t share words gave rise to a sort of sixth sense between the pair. When it came to creating choreography, “he was my mirror, and I was his mirror”. In Samsara, they could be seen as two sides of the same person, darting and swirling in and out of light and sudden darkness on an atmospheric stage, backed by the dense thrum of live music from a trio including throat singer Michael Ormiston.

His partner’s movement has a boneless quality to it. The first time Odedra saw him dance “it was like mercury”, he says. “I didn’t know where his hand was, where his head was, his elbow, nothing made sense.” Odedra marvels at his friend’s ability to hold the viewer’s attention even when not moving: “His stillness, I think that’s the most beautiful among all the incredible things he does with his body.”

At the heart of Samsara is the Buddhist philosophy of the wheel of life, and the cycle of death and rebirth, something Odedra feels we’ve all had to face up to during the pandemic – his own extended family and friends were particularly hard hit. “Every time you opened up Facebook it was: RIP, RIP, RIP,” he says (not all of those deaths were Covid). “After my 37th funeral in that two years I stopped counting. Death started to become part of life.”

Samsara was created before (and interrupted by) the pandemic, but its themes have become acutely relevant. “Somewhere inside, this piece speaks about life and death, not as the end but as a continuum.” It’s also, he says, a return to his classical technique, after moving more and more into contemporary dance. “I felt I’d detached from it for a long time. I’ve brought back the sense of roots,” he says, taking another step in his circling journey.