2020 Festival Report: Case Study
CHINA / UNITED KINGDOM / INDIA
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A world premiere for Asia TOPA 2020, Samsara was initially inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s classic 16th century novel Journey to the West, depicting a monk’s arduous pilgrimage from China to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts.
The co-creators and performers Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan are globally regarded as leading exponents of contemporary dance, as well as culturally-specific forms of dance. Odedra has garnered worldwide attention in the Indian classical forms Kathak and Bharatanatyam, while Shenyuan is considered a virtuoso of traditional Chinese folk dance.
Despite not sharing a common spoken language, through a deep respect for each other’s cultures and profound artistic connection, the artists entered a shared physical and spiritual dimension through the medium of dance. Shenyuan said of the concept of 'Samsara' that one Mandarin translation was "Something like the roadless road" and Odedra interprets Samsara as "like trying to count grains of sand in the river Ganges; something that is personal but infinite."
Aakash Odedra is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. Born in Birmingham, UK, he trained in the classical Indian dance styles of Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Odedra formed the Aakash Odedra Company in 2011 as a vehicle for commissioning solos and to develop his own choreographic work. His debut full length solo Rising featured new short works created for him by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant. As choreographer he was commissioned to create a piece for James Brown: Get on the Good Foot (Apollo Theater, New York) and the Opera God’s Little Soldier (Theater Freiburg), The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the closing of the London Cultural Olympiad.
Hu Shenyuan is an independent dancer and choreographer. He graduated from the Dance Academy of Central MinZu University before working in Beijing for LDTX Dance Company from 2012 to 2014. As a dancer, he played Yu Ji in Yang Liping’s dance work Under Siege to great public acclaim. In 2017, Shenyuan became the first young artist supported by Yang Liping Art Foundation, created his work Roving and established his studio Hu-Hu Dance. Shenyuan’s choreographic works include Roving, The Moonlight Rainbow, So Close, With, ID, Ego, Super-Ego and The Flower of Freedom. His many awards include Best Performance Award at the 4th Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition; the Silver Award from the 16th Italian Rome International Choreography Competition and the Jury Chairman’s Award at the 15th Seoul International Dance Competition in 2018.
Choreographers / Performers Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan
Composer Nicki Wells
Drummer Beibei Wang
Vocalist Michael Ormiston
Costume K H Lee
Dramaturg Lou Cope
Lighting Designer Dr Yaron Abulafia
Set Designer Tina Tzoka
Technical Director Salvatore Scollo
Producer Anand Bhatt
In early 2017, Asia TOPA Creative Director Stephen Armstrong attended a performance by Odedra in the UK and initiated an open dialogue about a future collaboration.
Odedra’s producer, Anand Bhatt then met with Armstrong at the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane and proposed the relationship developing between Odedra and Shenyuan, which was also likely to become a collaboration with partners in Shanghai.
It was clear that such a complex and refined concept would need an extended creative process and that this required multiple commissioning producers. By committing at this early stage to a co-commission and confirming an invitation to perform for Asia TOPA in 2020, the concept took shape as a ‘project’ with clear performance outcomes.
Leveraging global relationships of the internationally-regarded artists, Asia TOPA was joined by a network of co-commissioning partners brought together by Bhatt:
- The Birmingham Hippodrome
- Théâtre National de Chaillot, Paris
- Shanghai International Dance Centre
- The Curve Leicester, and
- The Royal Ballet, London.
With additional support of The Bagri Foundation, over an 18-month period the artists participated in a series of residency-style developments in Australia, China and United Kingdom.
Trustee of the Bagri Foundation, Alka Bagri said, "to be able to support two extremely talented dancers and choreographers as part of this one-of-a-kind commission is a real privilege. With our aim at the Foundation to support new generations of talent that celebrate traditional Asian arts in a contemporary way, this felt like a perfect fit."
The prolonged development was largely a result of Odedra and Shenyuan being in different locations and touring with other projects. However, the time also afforded the artists an opportunity to develop a depth of personal, artistic and cultural understanding.
Themes of intercultural exchange and shared philosophy were key to the artists’ interpretation of ‘samsara’. Both described a profound and immediate connection and, in-part due to their language barriers, they found an unspoken way of communicating through dance that enabled them to exchange on a deep cultural level.
Odedra said that he and Shenyuan reflected upon "how to take an ancient form and retain its essence but make a work for today’s audience", and their intention was "to make work that a person from any walk of life can come to and connect with, not just the dance community".
In September 2019, Odedra and Shenyuan flew to Melbourne for a two-week intensive rehearsal, facilitated by Asia TOPA and hosted in-kind by Lucy Guerin Inc at Guerin’s studio. In exchange for their hospitality, Odedra gave an exclusive masterclass for Guerin’s regular ensemble and wider network of dancers.
For Odedra and Shenyuan, the Australian development proved a watershed moment in the work’s creation while the masterclass enabled personal and creative relationships to be formed between the local and visiting artists. Melbourne’s season was also supported by the Sydney office of the British Council.
In February 2020, Odedra and Shenyuan returned to Australia with the full creative team, where Asia TOPA had arranged a partnership with Bunjil Place – a vibrant community hub and entertainment precinct in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. Bunjil Place hosted Samsara’s two week technical residency in their fully equipped theatre for final creative and technical rehearsals.
During this rehearsal period, in consultation with the local artistic community, Odedra presented an intimate talk for 16 emerging and mid-career artists. The Bunjil Place residency concluded with two free preview performances of Samsara, attended by over 900 people, many of whom were families, new to contemporary dance, and reflected the diverse communities of the surrounding suburbs.
The programming team at Bunjil specifically commented that "the previews were extremely well received" and the Bunjil production crew added, "after the first preview, we received lovely words from the producer (Anand) saying how privileged they were to have the time at Bunjil Place to develop the show".
Audience members said of their experience, "I was so captivated the whole time and they move incredibly with each other" and "I’ve never seen anything like it and they both did an amazing job", and also noted "It was so great to see it at Bunjil!"
A common reality of presenting work within a busy festival schedule, just 24-hours before opening, the production moved to Arts Centre Melbourne for a final dress rehearsal.
Technical production was a critical component, most notably a striking lighting design and over 800kg of sand that poured across the stage throughout the performance.
Arts Centre Melbourne’s state-of-the-art technical facilities and highly-skilled production team were critical to realizing the work quickly, equaling exacting standards of the visiting artists and creative team.
David Harvey, Technical Director at Arts Centre Melbourne recalls "The production came together under pressure of time and was a beautiful performance […] Our technical staff were extremely accommodating and worked very hard to fulfil the needs of the project."
The world premiere presented at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre, was met with overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences and media, reflecting the powerful sensory and emotional experience of the work.
The broad appeal of the work was evident in the theatre, with an instantaneous and extended standing ovation "It was a mesmerizing, incredible one-hour journey. Aakash, Hu and their musical ensemble were riveting to watch and hear. Quite an unforgettable experience" said one audience member.
Frank Howson of TAGG (The Alternative Gig Guide) said, "From the moment it began, it was enthralling, evocative, mysterious, breathtaking and seductive...They were spellbinding in their commitment to perfection and at times resembled two parts of the same body. It is indeed a spiritual journey not only for the onstage characters but also for the audience witnessing it."
The opening night also became a focal point for a series of pre-show VIP stakeholder events hosted outside the theatre – including the Victorian Government, City of Melbourne and Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Strategically, Samsara was a unique opportunity to welcome aligned guests from two significant neighbors, India and China together at one event.
Across 4 performances, over 2000 people attended Samsara, attracting not only Melbourne’s well-established contemporary dance audience, but a large number of local diaspora audiences. 30% of Samsara audiences were first time ticket buyers at Arts Centre Melbourne.
The technical production elements were consistently praised by audiences. In his review, Paul Ransom of Dance Informa said "Technical, rigorous, virtuosic and transporting, Saṃsara is at once hugely theatrical and deeply private. Dr Yaron Abulafia’s lighting design is itself a form of dance. More than simple fx or colourful atmos, it is exactly what a theatrical device should be, adding without being intrusive, building without crowding out."
Presenting this profoundly moving contemporary artistic partnership inspired by spiritual and cultural connections, Samsara celebrates a 21st century vision of our region – one of the central value propositions of Asia TOPA.
Samsara profiled the importance of early investment and support for new work creation and the potential for broadening the audience base for culturally-specific work by focusing on the 'contemporary' in all its forms and expression. Connecting Samsara with the contemporary dance community through Lucy Guerin Inc and the culturally diverse communities of south-eastern Melbourne at Bunjil Place offered the ambition of the project a wide embrace by the community at large before its Arts Centre Melbourne premiere.
The technical and production elements of Samsara were also deeply embedded in the choreographic expression of the work. The performances showcased the commitment and expertise of Arts Centre Melbourne and Bunjil Place in delivering major cultural events.
As one Arts Centre Melbourne team member described "The stagecraft in Samsara was expertly executed, and this is even more of a feat when you consider there was only a day in which to bump-in, tech, rehearse and then open the show. It underscored for me, that the technical teams at Arts Centre Melbourne, who work night after night behind the scenes, were equally vital to the creative exchange that took place between stage and audience, and we are lucky to have some of the best in the world."
The network of co-commissioning partners who joined Asia TOPA for Samsara and more than a dozen other premieres reinforces Asia TOPA’s place in the global cultural ecosystem, investing in the creation and presentation of new works featuring leading artists from the region.
The reciprocity and trust developed between the creative teams, as well as the many commissioning and collaborative partners, resulted in rich global networks of people-to-people links.
Furthermore, bringing together cultural traditions of China and India presented a unique opportunity for government and business to leverage Samsara performances as a platform for hosting aligned diplomatic, cultural and trade guests.
Odedra reflected on the role cultural exchanges play in facilitating bilateral relationships;
Additionally, the successful residency and preview performances at Bunjil Place strengthened the spirit of collaboration with Arts Centre Melbourne, while also demonstrating an effective way to reach new and more diverse audiences.
Of course, audiences at Bunjil Place are also entitled to see works such as Samsara in their completed form and underlying connotations of presenting preview works at this venue should be considered. However, the performances provided an accessible free experience of a major creative work in development.
The value in continuing to develop and maintain the relationship between Arts Centre Melbourne and Bunjil Place, connecting to artists, producers, leaders and audiences from outer-metro regions, including diaspora communities, also demonstrates an opportunity for major cultural institutions more broadly.
Mehrban Hussain - Aakash Odedra headshot
Caiqi - Hu Shenyuan headshot
Nirvair Singh – ‘Creation’ embedded image (Quote overlay), Main image, Gallery images 1, 4, 5, 7, 8
Mark Gambino – Gallery images 2, 3, 6,