Akram Khan in Paris
By Patricia Boccadoro
PARIS, 25 January 2004—Akram Khan is a charismatic Anglo-Indian dancer who has combined or "confused", the word he prefers, his own cultural heritage with that of contemporary dance. This brilliant young artist has created an intensely personal body language from the shock caused by his introduction to contemporary dance at university after studying kathak since childhood.
"It was not a conscious or intellectual development", he told me at his hotel in Paris, "but simply that my body was making decisions for itself and yes, a unique language of movement was emerging from the confrontation of these two dance forms."
In a fascinating interview while in France for a series of appearances at the Theatre des Abbesses, Khan spoke to me of his early years and of the meaning of kathak, as well as of his recent company..
Born in London in 1974, where his Bengali background was carefully nurtured, Akram Khan began folk dance at home around the age of three. His mother had been a dancer in Bangladesh although, coming from a Muslim community, she never performed in public. He studied music for two years, and then began to learn kathak with the celebrated teacher Sri Pratap Pawar, whose own guru is seventy-five year old Birju Maharaj, a legend in his own lifetime.
"Kathak", Khan told me, "is the classical dance form of Northern India and Pakistan. Originating from the Kathaks, the people who used to give religious instruction in narrative form, it is concerned with human stories. Contrary to classical ballet, it is about imperfection, where the dancer creates something spontaneously."
"Music and dance are inseparable for we, the musicians and myself, are all searching for One, the first beat, which is the equivalent of looking for Krishna, the mythological god associated with love. Kathak has a geometric precision", he added, "and although we often take different paths, we know we'll meet at One.
"Mathematics is our base ," he explained, "and is the tool we use. Everything in Indian music works mathematically and is very logical. Once that's understood, the music can be appreciated in a different way, and you can start playing around with the rules. There's a lot of improvisation, and the complex patterns we work from are more simple than they look. My steps in Ronin start from a traditional format, and then I work instinctively, and just "confuse" everything. I prefer the word confuse to blend or mix, and besides, it's boring to do always the same thing," he said.
At Les Abbesses in December, Akram Khan mesmerized the audience the moment he arrived on stage in the darkness. His magnetic presence was immediately felt. As the lighting came on, he asked to see the audience as his performance is affected by the number of people, their reaction to him, and even by their breathing, whether tense or relaxed. When dancing at speed, he added, he also feels the adrenaline response of those watching.
The instant he moved, dance flickered and flashed around him, as arms whipping and feet stamping, the rhythms intensified by ankle bells, he burst into a series of very fast, graceful, virtuosic turns. He dipped and spun to the voice of Faheem Mazhar, and then repeated or replied to some of the musical themes on his ankle bells before launching into a contest with his brilliant tabla percussionist, Baluji Shrivastav. A dialogue was improvised between the two of them. It was breathtaking.
"When I'm with my musicians, several of whom have been with me since the beginning, I'm very Indian." he said. "It is strange, but I need to feel Indian before I perform with them, and my preparation is different. Another side of me takes over when I'm with my dancers, and although I don't like generalizations, I do become extremely Western."
When he was thirteen, Khan took two years out to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company's Mahabhavata, directed by Peter Brook, which marked him deeply. A few years later, pushed by the academically minded community he lived in, he went to university to study dance, first in Leicester, and then at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds.
"I wanted formal contemporary training, but sadly it was all about everyone looking the same, which is the case with many dance schools," he said. " But I studied classical ballet, Graham and Cunningham, and discovered Pina Bausch, Jiri Kylian, and DV8, people who are real," he added. "Then shortly after leaving, I began making solo pieces. But it wasn't much fun creating just for myself, so my own company was formed in 2000."
"I saw each dancer perform before inviting them to join me, but what mattered most was that they believed in what they were doing, and made me believe in it too. I saw one of them audition for another company in a most amazing way; he arrived with no music, no steps, but simply stood there and breathed, following the respiration of those auditioning him. When he was rejected, I grabbed him. We were five very individual dancers and at first it wasn't easy. Now, we have two beautiful classically trained ballerinas from Slovakia joining us."
Commenting on contemporary dance in general, where provocation often replaces innovation, he said he didn't consider England to be part of the European dance scene anymore. "Europe, and particularly Germany has moved way ahead. In the United States the situation is disastrous. The Americans are stuck in the sixties and seventies because the whole culture of dance has shifted. The young choreographers there are going nowhere, not because they aren't talented, but because there's no money. It's a shame. I was there for nine weeks recently, and was told that nobody wants to give money to dance anymore."
Teaching, too, Khan told me, is an important part of learning, and one of the dancer's best kept secrets is a small class of children he has been giving lessons to for the last two years.
"They were five years old when they started learning kathak with me", he said, "and when I can't be there, a senior student takes over. I teach six incredible little girls who have no inhibitions at all and already have the level of sixteen year olds in India, but I want to wait another five years or so before they perform in public."
Meanwhile, audiences must content themselves with seeing Khan's grown-up contemporary group, at the Theatre Les Abbesses in February with a full-length work, Kaash, created in 2002. Contemporary kathak, to use the phrase coined by several British critics?
Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms. Boccadoro is also the dance editor of Culturekiosque.com.