Dance to suppress oppression: Aakash Odedra Company #JeSuis review

21/05/19 Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury

In a digital age where information can be accessed anywhere, anytime, it is bizarre that some stories escape documentation. Among posing many questions, Aakash Odedra Company’s award-winning #JeSuis interrogates the prejudice and bias inherent in global news, creating a performance space which brings to light the many events and atrocities that go ‘un-hashtagged.’ 

#JeSuis might take its title from the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015, but it is staged in a time where a similar event occurred in Istanbul but went unnoticed. As such, #JeSuis questions the systemic issues in Western news-reporting. Why do some catastrophes make headlines when others do not? Why the hierarchy? What makes one crisis more ‘newsworthy’ than the other? Is it possible to document everything?

#JeSuis is bold in its interrogations and rightly so. It highlights the discomforting truth that whilst today’s news is tomorrow’s history, human suffering exceeds this time to leave its mark on its victims indefinitely. Does the news report this?

Odedra’s choreography digs deeper and deeper until it hits the root to lie bare this complex issue. In #JeSuis the audience follows five dancers — whether they are refugees or reactionaries — and one tyrannical, military leader. What unfolds is a labyrinth of censorship and oppression. The leader’s movement is protean and hair-raisingly domineering. As the antithesis, the oppressed dancers’ movement is anxious and tense. Fleeting moments of release are squandered by the realisation of their futility.

At one point a dancer challenges the towering guard, in a duel which manages to retain its knife-bending tension without near enough any contact. She does not win however, and thus the instrument of her freedom of expression — her voice — is suppressed; her mouth, limbs and head bound in cling-film.

Odedra and the dancers have finessed this choreography to the point where it perfectly articulates what cannot be spoken. The movement is quick, relentless and gutsy, a raw embodiment of the emotions felt and experienced by persecuted individuals.

An intoxicating piece of contemporary dance theatre, it has the hypnotic suspense of watching a spinning-top that resists its own end. Whilst its length is warranted to give justice to these important narratives, there was one part in particular which would not be missed if it was omitted.

We’ve just seen one individual treated worse than the lowliest vermin, so much so that a mental breakdown is imminent. A dancer — the comedic one who earlier placed a radio in front of his head to mock the Fuhrer — laughs at the other dancer’s bent-doubled, depleted carcass. For his own entertainment, the joker manipulates this barely-alive body into different positions calling him ‘Lady Gaga’ at one point.

This section is provocatively perverse, indicating how some can heartlessly prioritise their own vanity and ego in the face of someone suffering. But the timing was off and it felt misplaced. It was trying to give dark, comic relief when the piece had already climaxed and was nearing its end. It needs to come earlier, perhaps.

That being said, #JeSuis is a powerful piece of work, concluding with the dancers coming together as a collective to fight against adversity. It is thought-provoking without dictation, intense and full of sinewy choreography. It educates and exposes in times of censorship and gives voice to those who cannot speak in times of oppression. Surely that is the function of real, political dance art in the twenty-first century?

Image Alastair Muir