NINE AND A HALF BEATS
Trish Murphy talks to Akram Khan, who performs at Project on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19May as part of International Dance Festival Ireland.
The Outstanding Newcomer to Dance Award 2000 from both the Critics Circle and Time Out Live; nominations for a Best Choreography Award by the Dance Critics Circle for 2001, and for a South Bank Dance Show Award for 2002 – Akram Khan is definitely the toast of the UK dance scene. But it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head; in fact he’s quite modest about his success. “It’s nice but it means very little to me. It’s not important, because people win awards, people don’t win awards – it doesn’t matter, it’s what their work says. And for me it’s great, I go through it and I say, yes, thank you very much, and I’d like to thank this person and that person, but at the end of the day it doesn’t enhance my work. What enhances my work is what I learn, and the mistakes I make, so for me it’s not such a crucial element. For me what matters is if I’m happy with the work, or if I’m moving forward all the time, then it’s a good thing.”
His dance, which has garnered rave reviews – ‘fiercely intelligent dance’ from the Glasgow Herald; ‘mental and physical brilliance’, from the Daily Telegraph; ‘a phenomenon’, from the London Evening Standard; ‘a truly astonishing fusion of talents’, from The Observer – is rooted in the ancient Indian tradition of Kathak, a discipline he started training in at the tender age of eight. Brought up in south London, of Bangladeshi parents, it was his mother’s insistence that he have an understanding of his cultural inheritance that introduced him to the north Indian classical dance form Kathak. “It’s a story telling dance form, but I’m looking more at the abstract elements, the language of movement, and the sense of energy that is given out from Kathak. The direction of energy and technique is something I’m investigating, and also the musical element that Kathak encompasses – it encompasses north Indian music in a very strong way, particularly the complex rhythmical patterns.”
Despite these complex structures, it’s not a stylised form of dance. “It’s extremely mathematical and geometrical, but it’s not formal when you present it. The technical aspect when you’re going through training is really,” – and he repeats it for emphasis, “really, really precise, so precise it’s unbelievable. But when you present it, it’s exactly the opposite, because you let go of the technique. The technique isn’t the important aspect, it’s about the dancer and the dance. And we speak a lot on stage, we talk to the audience. It’s nearly like a lecture dance, very informal in that way. A large part of Kathak is improvised, and sometimes I don’t prepare anything.” Mind you, his approach to Kathak is probably quite different to what might be experienced in India, partly because of his cross-cultural upbringing – “I lived two lives really, which most of the Asian people do who are born and brought up in this country” – but also because of his contemporary dance studies, initially at de Montfort University and subsequently at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds.
There has been much talk about the way Khan has brought about a fusion of two very different dance forms, the traditional and the contemporary, but he doesn’t see it that way. “When I present purely Kathak, then I present Kathak, but in my own way. When it comes to my contemporary work, I wouldn’t call it necessarily a fusion, but I would say my contemporary work is informed by my Kathak training and by the Indian tradition. So in a way I’m not looking at fusion. For me what’s happened is, because I’ve been trained in Indian classical dance for so many years, and then many years down the line I decided to study contemporary dance at university, the body started getting confused, and started making decisions of its own. And my Indian classical dance teacher would say hold on, this is not purely Kathak any more; and my contemporary dance teacher would say this is definitely not contemporary dance. This kind of aesthetic, and the body making decisions of itself, was something that fascinated me, so I started improvising and creating material. So whenever I do contemporary, I will move in a very Indian classical dance way. Even though it’s the same movement executed, it is a completely different aesthetic and energy – so many different things about it.”
Dublin audiences will get a chance to see Khan’s exhilarating contemporary work including ‘Rush’, his first group piece, a trio inspired by paragliders in freefall, based, he explains, around nine and a half beats, the Indian time cycle. ‘Rush’ is performed alongside two solos, ‘Fix’ and ‘Loose in Flight’. There’s also a film version of ‘Loose in Flight’, a five minute low-budget piece they did for Channel 4. “It’s quite interesting seeing it on film, and then live, so we decided to keep that in.” The live version features a tabla player who is going to improvise on those famous nine and a half beats. “It’s nice for someone to demonstrate the intricacies of it.”
Khan has collaborated with a number of composers, among them Kevin Volans and Nitin Sawheny, who has written the music for ‘Fix’. How important is the composer to his work? “Crucial, because in Kathak the music does not exist without the dance, the dance does not exist without the music. In contemporary it’s slightly different, because silence can play a big role. But the relationship between the composer and the choreographer is extremely crucial, especially when we deal with such intricate rhythms - we rely on that music, and in a way they rely on the dance, so it’s an integral part.” He explains that he’s not interested in presenting Indian music or dance as such, and is quite scathing about some of his colleagues. “Artists from an Indian background or Indian training misunderstand or misinterpret what contemporary dance is about, but their version for me is very naïve”, and he goes on to cite the bizarre, if exaggerated notion of an Indian classical dance piece with Beethoven music. “The misconception is that in classical dance the boundaries are extremely clear, whereas in contemporary dance there are no boundaries; there are boundaries, but they’re a little cloudier. People from the Indian dance background that I’ve come across kind of feel that you can do anything, but you can’t; there are very strong boundaries, you just can’t see them.”
Not surprisingly, his work has been generating a lot of interest around Europe and in the US – as we speak, he’s in Germany in the middle of a very successful European tour. “What’s interesting for me with ‘Rush’ and ‘Loose in Flight’, everywhere we go so far, people always get shocked, because it’s like seeing movement in a very different way. Because in Europe what’s happening is there’s a lot of dance theatre, a real interest in multi-art collaboration, so actually dance is getting left behind in a way. In a place like France, which is so conceptual-based, or Belgium, suddenly they’re seeing movement again, but not in the same way. So the critics are being very, very positive towards dance itself.” Nevertheless, he seems slightly bemused and even a little put out by the hype surrounding his new piece ‘Kaash’ which premieres at the South Bank in a couple of weeks time. “Film stars are coming to see it – I don’t know where they heard about it; I mean they don’t even know me, I don’t even know them – this was even before I made the work!” It makes for a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectations, so he’s quite happy to be heading for Dublin. “Nobody knows me there, which is great!”