January 2004Akram 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
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
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
"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."
© Photo: courtesy of Akram Khan
"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
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
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."
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
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
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
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