The Akash Odedra Company explore issues of oppression and our communal response to them in their latest piece, #JeSuis, performed at the Lilian Baylis Theatre.
If the title of Aakash Odedra’s new production reminds one of the famous #JeSuisCharlie movement on Twitter (a movement formed in the aftermath of the notorious terrorist attack at a newspaper office in Paris), this is intentional. Indeed, Odedra’s piece tells a compelling story of oppression, censoring of speech, and people’s resistance through solidarity, echoing exactly the #JeSuisCharlie spirit. However, #JeSuis is also everything that #JeSuisCharlie is not. No, it’s not about any ad hoc tragic event and it doesn’t pertain to any particular political context. Instead, it depicts the ordinary life of ordinary people where oppression is an ordinary presence.
The genius creativity of the Odedra team lies not only in their artfully choreographed movements, but also in how they make lights and shadow dance for them. The piece opened to a stage in complete darkness, except for what looked like a floor light dragged along by its wire. This unnerving trick of light quickly engaged the audience. Wobbling along the edge of the performance space, then pulled up into the air, dangling, the light revealed a setting not unlike an interrogation room. What we saw was one table, a few chairs, a radio, a pile of papers, a hanging mic and that same dangling ceiling lamp of course. With seven extremely talented performers, #JeSuis proved that this was all it takes to make a 65-minute piece of brilliant dance theatre work.
The narrative of state oppression against common people can be easily grasped from their look. The tall bearded dancer was dressed up in a military style jacket and a side cap, while six other younger looking dancers wore civilian clothes. The latter, a group that was at first curious, playful and somewhat disoriented, were forced to read from written scripts, instructed to move in synchronicity. Whoever did not follow the collective mania would be picked out and punished.
The “oppression” scene probably reached its climax when a “dissident” was slowly suffocated by layers of clear film wrappings, at first by the “oppressor,” but soon joined by a crowd of her very own. Meanwhile, a timid voice read, ‘birds are flying… the weather is nice…welcome to our beautiful country…’, and ‘if you just close your eyes…’, ‘they were doing the best for us…’ Such utterances reflect how people are psychologically conditioned to follow instructions only to then start self-censoring. Victims become abusers, avoiding reality and rationalising the abuse. As someone growing up in a country with heavy censorship and now a student of criminology and political violence, what was described in #JeSuis was painfully real and brutally sobering. In different parts of the world and in different spheres of struggles, this same story is repeated daily.
Towards the end, a deeply paranoid and traumatised boy finally bursts into laughter and then falls into tearful bouts of crying after a series of light-hearted jokes made by another naughty child. That was when the previously numb and cowardly crowd started singing together, bonded, united and fighting against the “oppressor.” Having seen so many romanticised stories of evil, oppression and heroic resistance, I am simply glad to find #JeSuis adopting such a rich and critical take on human nature: the confusion and fear we all have, the temptation and hesitation when faced with difficult decisions; and yet, the greatest unified response of empathy, the bravery and true altruism we can exemplify when confronted with oppression.
Even more so, just when I start wondering when, if ever, the director would make any effort, however light a touch, to explore the complexity of the “oppressor” role, who seemed to have been largely portrayed as a psychopathic fanatic throughout the show, my request was answered! The ending sees the oppressor figure trembling and tumbling to the ground, barricaded by a circle of people tapping their feet in unity. He then slowly takes off the big military jacket, follows the crowd, and blends into one of them.
Surely, this carries a slightly hopeful tone that, via solidarity, those who are struggling could ultimately triumph their oppressors? But what really becomes the highlight of my sensational journey with Odedra’s #JeSuis is this final reminder: that after everything, the agent of oppression could be one of us, the ordinary people.
It left me thinking about the infamous Milgram experiment and how people commit acts of good and evil depending on the social, political and institutional conditions they’re met with. It reminded me of Primo Levi’s words: ‘monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’
Coming back to the dance itself, the execution of the choreography was simply sharp and natural. There is nothing particularly spectacular in the movement. But, for me, that was the best part. The story-telling is never over-taken by overly complicated and technical moves. At times the narrative overtook the choreography so as to make one forget that they were watching a dance performance.
In short, #JeSuis is definitely not your typical aesthetic or entertaining piece of dance along with music pleasing to the ears. On the contrary, it is extremely intense and a little uncomfortable to watch in some places. The realism, the thoughtful and critical perspectives on who we are and whom we could become as human beings in all forms of our struggles, make it highly relevant to many contended issues of our time.
The Akash Odedra Company’s production, #JeSuis, was performed at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, on 7 and 8 November 2018. For more information about the performance and the Akash Odedra Company, click here and here.