February 2005— Ma, 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
Akram Khan: Ma
Photo: © Jean-Pierre
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
"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
Akram Khan: Ma
"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.
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
"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
** 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.
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.
Anglo-Indian Dancer Akram Khan
Double Triumph for Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui