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Interview: Akram Khan and "Ma"

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 February 2005Ma, a piece for a dozen dancers and musicians by the brilliant young Anglo Indian dancer /choreographer, Akram Khan, received excellent reviews at its performance at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, and yet when I met him for lunch before Christmas, Khan told me that his new work had been "torn apart" by the British critics, well, by just one of them, six months previously at its première.

The charismatic Khan then came out with the surprising statement that his newest work was still at a very early stage, and would continue to change until he felt he'd got it right, and that he could almost say the whole creation had only begun in June, and what was seen in Paris had little to do with the original version.

"The learning happens during the show, not in rehearsal", he said. "When we have an audience in front of us, the whole timing is different, and what is honest and truly belongs in the work takes over. And changes aren't small ones. I come to realize that what I first thought right for the work simply isn't. Some movements happen by accident, but others have to be worked on for a long period of time."

Akram Khan: Ma
Akram Khan: Ma
Photo: © Jean-Pierre Maurin

Ma, has a dual meaning", he told me. "It means mother and it means earth, and was initially inspired by the beautiful book, God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. And then in a second book she wrote, a collection of essays based on the world scenario politically and its relation to India, I was struck by the fact that millions of farmers are being displaced from their land in the space of a day because dams were going to be built. If you take away his land, the farmer has nothing. In India the earth is considered as holy because it provides food and water and so people cultivate it and pay tribute to it as they would their mother."

"And then", he continued, "my dancers and I spent a year just exchanging ideas and working on how best to show that the earth itself is complaining. We eat from it, build on it, and drop bombs on it; it's been complaining for a while, but we, as a civilisation, have chosen not to listen.

"There's the existence of spirituality in my classical work and that of the sciences in my contemporary, and I often feel that my contemporary work is rather like a science laboratory which clashes with the spirituality in classical dance and so in Ma I'm trying to find a connection between them. I'm fascinated by story-telling which forms an intrinsic part of my Kathak performances, and I wanted to bring it into my new creation which is why I asked Hanif Kureishi* to help me with the texts".

Indeed, the work, which leaves one with the compelling feeling of needing to see it again, begins with the powerful image of a man suspended head downwards from a tree, which, as Khan says, can be interpreted in many different ways, not least in that he sees the world in chaos. It is an image from his own childhood, as he explains afterwards that as a child in Bangladesh he would spend hours in this position, fantasising that thoughts would fall down out of his head, and then he'd climb down to listen to them.

Another story told is of the woman who asked God for a child, but he only sent her a packet of seeds. She plants them, but upon asking God why he has not sent her the baby she wanted, receives the answer that the trees she has planted are her children, and her feelings for them are the same as a mother for her children.

Ma, said Khan, "is about hope; and about clarity and chaos. We live on one part of the planet, but everything that happens on the other side has its repercussions, like the story of the butterfly which flaps its wings and causes an earthquake on the other side."

Akram Khan: Ma
Akram Khan: Ma
Photo:© Jean-Pierre Maurin


"My piece is also a way of saying thank you to my dancers** whom I've pushed way beyond technique, and the speed hasn't been easy for them as everything springs from Kathak which itself takes years and years of training. I tried to make them believe in what they were doing so that the audience would too. Everything we do, each movement we make has its own meaning. Each gesture made by a human being has a soul and if there's a soul, there's a meaning. I don't believe you can use the word abstract. "

The fact that his contemporary work has been labelled as "contemporary kathak" by many specialists leaves him puzzled.

" In fact, I was trained as a musician", he said, " and then my dual studies as a dancer led to a confusion in my body of two or three very different languages, for I studied classical ballet too, and after I presented a short solo, Loose in Flight in London, I was told I'd invented a new language. So I went off to do some exploring, but got myself so confused I couldn't tell where one style began and another ended."

"What I do know is that when I put my Indian costume on for Kathak, I become Indian", he said. "And each day, whether I'm happy, sad or sick, I put my ankle bells on and practise for an hour or two. When I was younger, I'd work for seven hours, but now, there's not enough time".

"On the other hand, I'm curious about choreography. I want to find something of my own. As a child, I grew up in London, but I don't really belong there. I'm part of a minority group, but I don't really fit in completely there either. My contemporary work is a journey to find something which is mine."



* Hanif Kureishi wrote My Beautiful Launderette

** Akram Khan will be working on a project with Sylvie Guillem and on another with the Flemish/Moroccan choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in the next two years.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

Related CK Archives

Beyond Kathak: Anglo-Indian Dancer Akram Khan

Dance Review: Akran Khan

Zero Degrees: Double Triumph for Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Interview: Shantala Shivalingappa

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