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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 JANUARY 2006 — When two internationally acclaimed choreographer/dancers, Akram Khan, British/Bangladeshi and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui , born in Belgium with a Flemish/ Moroccan heritage got together, the result was almost bound to be explosive. When one adds to that the name of Nitin Sawhney, the award winning composer and musician, it became a certainty.

When writing about Khan, trained first in Kathak and then in contemporary, superlatives abound. Dark-eyed and dark-skinned with a powerful stage presence he is one of the finest dancers around. Classically trained, fast, precise, with an extraordinary fluidity, he is grace personified.

And apart from their shared European Muslim background it would appear that Cherkaoui, slender, pale, and fragile, had but  little in common with him. But the seemingly odd pairing with Cherkaoui, known for his work with Ballets C de la B, and who is a gifted acrobat, comic and actor as well as dancer, was irresistible.  It was, in fact, a stroke of genius!

Presented recently at the Theatre de la Ville, this unusual collaboration, entitled Zero Degrees, began with the two men sitting casually side by side on a plain white stage set inhabited by two silicone bodies lying motionless behind them, dummies, which would later stand in as witnesses to the action or as replacements for the dancers.

Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Zero Degrees

Khan and Cherkaoui, in perfect unison, and not without humour, began to tell us the story of Khan's horrendous train journey from Bangladesh to India and of his problems with the border police because he found a dead man in his railway carriage.

"I watched my passport pass through the hands of all the guards", they chorused, "and I didn't let it out of my sight, because, although it's just a piece of paper, without it you have no identity."

Synchronised gestures accompanied the dialogue, each mirroring the other's movements, their arms, wrists and fingers forming shapes, entwining, interlocking, their arms making graceful arcs in the air, each dancer's movements an extension of the other. They were hypnotic, recapitulating the reaction of bystanders and the stationmasters, alternating their dialogue with sudden whiplash movements. What appeared superficially simple and entertaining was in fact quite violent with undercurrents for in addition to what we saw, the audience knew there was an additional private conversation going on between the two of them.

Khan was so riveting that one no longer saw any choreography so dazed were we by watching Sawhney's music made motion with spins of dizzying rapidity. His grace, power and steel contrasted with the vulnerability of Cherkaoui, whose slender, boneless body slid across the ground in impossible angles in a mesmerising earth-bound solo.

They continued their story, sometimes together, other times separately, often finishing each other's phrases, telling of how Khan's confusion over his foreignness turned into energy as the guard just watched him.

The two dancers interrupt the spoken words to dialogue with their movements in sequences where they stamped rhythmically and spiralled around each other on their off-beat journey where they left behind their own world and their own rules.

As the show ended, after an intensely moving kathak solo, Khan began to shake and quiver, his arms jerking uncontrollably before he was gathered up and carried off, along with his dummy, by Cherkaoui.

This was a performance that went way beyond a simple exchange between a kathak dancer who is seeing how far he can take his art and a leading figure in contemporary dance/theatre. Life and death, order versus chaos, the body versus the spirit? Interpret the work as you may, the essential point is that these two superb dancers/choreographers, both full of fantasy, mystery  and invention, overflowing with so much to say, are above all creators of atmosphere . It was impossible to differentiate between text, music, movement and rhythm. A fascinating experience.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. For many years, she contributed to The Guardian, 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.

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