Searching for Sacred Scrolls: Samsara at Edinburgh’s Lyceum

Dancer in sand shower. Image Jassy Earl, EIF
Dancer in sand shower.


From: 18 Aug 2022

To: 20 Aug 2022

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Grindlay Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Founded in 2011, the Aakash Odedra Company creates work which combine kathak, bharatanatyam, contemporary dance and Bollywood-jazz, aiming to break boundaries through the British–Asian experience to translate ancient and modern movement into modern storytelling.

Samsara begins with the vibrant striking of a gong, reminiscent of the iconic opening scene of Rank Organisation movies. This is a visually enriching choreographic, rather than a cinematic experience, the title taken the Sanskrit word for the perpetual cycle of life, birth, death and rebirth. The narrative themes and imagery are inspired by the fantastical poetic tale, Journey to the West, by We Cheng’en, relating the legendary pilgrimage by a 7th century Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his disciples across central Asia to India in search of sacred scrolls.   

Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan
Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan

Devised and performed by Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan, their shared choreographic language is an harmonious blend of dance, music, song, art and athletic movement from their native Indian and Chinese philosophy and culture. 

The dark, bare stage is flanked on each side by human statues standing in pools of sand, who like the audience, appear to observe all that is going on. Out of the shadows, in spotlight, Hu Shenyuan portrays the mystical figure of the monk in a hooded cloak, interpreting the moment of birth. This is the start of his journey through the wheeling circle of life.

Sitting backstage is a trio of singers and musicians, Nicki Wells, Beibei Wang and Michael Ormison. First, the soft sound of Mongolian throat-singing, a choral, humming chant, and then the light tinkle of xylophone keys and gentle brush of drums. The two dancers, in loose flowing trousers, glide gracefully in twists and turns, arms and legs stretching in slow, slow Tai Chi forms. 

Tai-Chi forms
Tai Chi forms

As the percussion picks up pace, they spin around in wildly expressive, high-kicking duets, their bare feet keeping the beat like a tap dancing routine. Facing each other in combat, they engage in a martial arts showdown with disciplined precision – an aggressive, sparring performance, like a Strictly dance-off – so which one is the better dancer? The drummers dictate the tempo to every step of the dancers and also, seemingly, their adrenaline-pumping heartbeat. The very stillness of sculptures, still watching the action, is in stark contrast to the energetic and at times frenetic movement.

The momentum and mood are captured through the melodic and lyrical soundscape: traditional Far Eastern songs based on the monks’ thoughts about the journey, performed by Nicki Wells in Indian and Chinese, have the tone and tempo of Gaelic waulking wool tunes. 

The two adversaries are reconciled, mimicking each other’s movements like synchronised divers, their limbs intertwined almost becoming one man, their four arms echoing the symbolic image of the God Vishnu.  

Symbolic four arms of Vishnu
Symbolic four arms of Vishnu

Then with such lithe physical agility, Shenyuan raises one leg straight up in the air, posing with such elegant poise.  

Hu Shenyuan - athletic pose
Hu Shenyuan – athletic pose

As their spiritual journey concludes, a sprinkling shower of sand pours over the dancers – evoking the sands of time of an hourglass as a metaphor for the short existence of human life, reminding us to be aware of our mortality as we continue through our own Samsara. 

An extraordinary athleticism and agility run throughout the production.
An extraordinary athleticism and agility permeate the production.

Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan create an artistically beautiful, hypnotic and electrifying performance, expressing the human body like balletic sculptured figures with a meditative, calm sense of peace.

This was the UK premiere in Edinburgh before a small national tour starting in Leicester on 1st October, 2022.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review, and to Elaine Pritchard for additional research. EIF photographs by Jassy Earl.

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