The arts centre and the scent of love

What’s an arts centre for? Arguably there are three key functions: to deliver artistic work that its audience might not otherwise experience, to test the boundaries of the art form by fostering new thinking, and to promote excellence – maybe excellence in content and delivery, certainly excellence in imagination and perception.

Most of the time one or more of these will take prominence, and that’s fine. But sometimes you get all of them and all at the same time.

There’s a good chance that Mehek will deliver this. It’s a world premiere (on 7 and 8 February in The Arts Center’s Red Theater), devised and performed by two of the most talented South Asian dancers of their generation – Aditi Mangaldas and Aakash Odedra.

So it’s going to be top-quality choreography and dancing. It’s in the Kathak style, which is committed, technically demanding and deserves an even wider audience beyond its culture; but Mehek also showcases an impressive ability to innovate within the classical Indian dance form, and that expands horizons. The work depicts a love story between a mature woman and a younger man, not the usual stuff of performance; “through choreography, we aim to give a voice to an unspoken and overlooked love story”, said Odedra, “and through that performance push audiences to confront their own definitions of love.”

And it’s not just performance: it’s part of a five-week developmental residency that has an NYUAD course designed around it, the second time that this has been done for a world premiere of a piece by Odedra.

In short: “The Arts Center helps distinguished artists realise their vision and bring it into the world, and we’re thrilled that dancers at Aakash and Aditi’s level are entrusting us with premiering their work” – as Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director at The Arts Center at NYUAD, put it.

The genesis of Mehek actually lay in the pandemic. “Covid was a life-changing moment for all artists,” Odedra told us. “There was no distinction between rich and poor, popular, and unknown … It forced people to think about what is important to them in life, which then made me think who I really want to work with. The first name that came to my heart and mind was Aditi Mangaldas.”

Aditi Mangaldas is a dancer and choreographer who has used evolved a contemporary dance vocabulary from her knowledge and experience of Kathak. She’s been celebrated around the world for the richness and intricacy of her dance, and the critical plaudits she has collected speak for themselves: “Mangaldas owned the stage without trying to earn it … Dance as effortlessly compelling as this is a joy to watch in itself … An exceptional performer and choreographer, Aditi’s dance stands out for the contrast it conjures up – charged stillness and whirling energy …”

Aakash Odedra describes himself as an ardent admirer of Aditi Mangaldas and her work. He managed to persuade her to create a solo piece with his company – “up until to this point, she had never created a solo on anyone, not even within her own company” – and their friendship grew from that: “it was an unforgettable experience that shaped me as a soloist”.

Eventually he proposed a duet. “To my surprise she said yes; we didn’t know how or when it would happen, but what was most important to me was that she had given the green light, and I wasn’t going to wait around for this opportunity to fade away.

“Somehow through the chaos of covid, international flights, being pinged by the NHS, and holding rehearsals in the kitchen we met in Leicester – Aditi, her team of musicians, the rehearsal director Gaurav Bhatti and me – and prepared a short excerpt of this potential duet for Fiona Allan’s leaving party at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

“We loved the idea of being able to dance with another human being after one year of screen fatigue, and both agreed on a concept that involved love from two different perspectives generationally, as well as on a subject that is taboo worldwide; older women falling in love with younger men.

“When a man gets married to a younger woman it is acceptable, but when a woman desires a younger lover, she is most of the time ridiculed by society – and often by her own conditioning.

“In most Indian mythology an older woman is a god or a saint, basically elevated to a point where she is no longer human. Then it becomes acceptable for her to fall in love with a younger mortal or god to justify her desire …

“It makes one question the norms of life on a conscious and subconscious level, to question to what degree are we all conditioned. How can break it to see a wider perspective?

“Aditi defies norms by being a 64-year-old dancer still going strong, using her art as a tool to bring change to centuries old systems that govern Indian subcontinent and society, being a female independent dancer whose controversial dance themes have always been the basis of much debate. I feel like she says what most of us think and want to say simply by existing and being who she is.”

“And thus Mehek was born.”

How about the metaphor itself? Mehek means ‘fragrance’ in Hindi and Urdu, and that seemed apposite: “something that remains in your memory, something that can be conjured back to life simply by a thought, feeling simple and powerful … What remains when all else has gone? Love and its fragrance.”

The story is loosely inspired by Heer Ranja, one of the notable popular tragic romances tales of the Punjab (there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet – another love affair opposed by family members that ends tragically). “But with Aditi’s naturally rebellious spirit, our story very quickly took departure from its original inspiration.”

‘Katha’ means story, ‘kathakar’ is a storyteller. In essence Kathak is a form of storytelling through movement and expression, “bringing poetry into motion to mathematical complex percussive rhythms” as Odedra put it.

“A key characteristic of this form for me personally is its ability to evolve to its environment and viewers. Initially Kathak was performed in small village temples. When the Mughals ruled India, it moved into their courts and adapted its poetry to speak the language of its new patrons. With the British, it entered into the proscenium stage. And now it is evolving to break its geographical boundaries of language and form so that it can communicate to a wider global audience.”

There’s also the spiritual component of Kathak, the relationship of a student and the Guru and the reverence and respect given to the givers of knowledge. “A responsibility and bond are created between the student and the Guru, and often the dancer is a student for life. Compare that to the west, where a Guru is called a teacher and the relationship ends when the student leaves the teacher’s institution.

“In Western dance, emphasis is placed on the physicality of the body rather than the soul. In my opinion Indian dance generally is about giving life’s experiences up with the progression of one’s own life and sharing those experiences on stage. It is less about the aesthetics of the body, more about the experiences one can create to transport the audience to other realms of consciousness which do not exist.

“In Indian dance, the older a dancer gets the more their dance matures through their experience.” In the West most dancers have retired by the age of 40; Aditi Mangaldas shows no sign of slowing at 64.

This will be the fifth time since 2014 that Aakash Odedra has performed and run workshops at NYUAD (four in person, one virtually) and he says it’s like coming home. “NYUAD Arts Center is like an oasis in this unstable world, a place where I can switch off from the harshness of life and do what I have come into this world to do, which is to share my art. When I come to NYUAD it feels like finding two giant palm trees with a freshwater pool in the middle of a desert, it’s a place where I can tie my creative hammock, lie down, look at the night sky ponder and write endless poetry … It is I would say the closest I have come to an art heaven on Earth.”

And maybe that’s the other thing you want from an arts centre.

Mehek is at The Arts Center for two performances, at 7.30pm on 7 and 8 February. Tickets are AED 105. As part of its commitment to developing the skills of local artists through its Off the Stage series, The Arts Center will also be hosting a dance workshop with Aakash Odedra on 9 February at 6.30pm; request an invitation here.

Mehek is created by Aakash Odedra Company and Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company / The Drishtikon Dance Foundation. It is presented with the support of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels from and co-commissioned by The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi Sadler’s Wells; The Lowry, Salford; Birmingham Hippodrome; and the Bagri Foundation. Mehek will be touring to those locations during 2024.

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