IF THERE’S ONE WORD that constantly recurs in the world of dance artist Akram Khan, it is trauma. “Rupture, actually,” London-based Khan specifies, sitting at an apartment in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai. His team has just ordered us filter coffee; the beach is only a walk away. Outside, the city is dealing with inclement weather. His colleagues are wondering if they need to move to a hotel close to the airport to fly out early the next morning. But in the dining room where Khan and I sit down to have our conversation, the chaos seems to pause. For Khan—a British dancer and choreographer of Bangladeshi descent, whose background is rooted in Kathak training and contemporary dance—rupture and then the ensuing calm are fundamental to his practice. In the break and in the pause, the viewer is both challenged and comforted.
“You see, my mother, Mita, always said to me that when things are smooth, it doesn’t reveal who you are. You have got to drown to know really how badly it is that you want to survive.” Outside, in the living room, his mother is in conversation with the core team of Akram Khan Company (AKC), enjoying a light moment. “My mother used to dance, she was an academic, an intellectual; but my father never let her do what she wanted to. He always wanted to control her. He wanted to control me too; he’d always whisper into my ear that I’d be a failure; but fortunately for me, my mother was always around to quickly whisper into my other ear that people are always afraid of the possibilities you can become, they are afraid of your reach.”
Growing up within this cacophony of mixed messaging, Khan acknowledges that he learnt how to deal with people early in life. “Slowly, one day at a time, thanks to my mother, the word ‘No’ became a possibility for me. I figured I work best when people resist. I also learnt that if you’ve got to be able to impact and effect change, then you’ve got to persist. I knew I loved dance; and I knew I wasn’t going to let my failures get the better of me.”
AKC is a global dance outfit that distils a multitude of voices to reflect a cohesive ideology. Khan’s choreography has the potential to inform, impact and evolve. “The body is a living museum where everything gets absorbed,” he says, “Change happens because of rupture; when something from the outside triggers something within to shift. I think my role as an artist and as the one who leads is to constantly guide my dancers to find a moment of truth in their dance, in their voice.”
“I learnt that if you’ve got to be able to impact and effect change, then you’ve got to persist. I knew I loved dance; and I knew I wasn’t going to let my failures get the better of me,” says Akram Khan, dancer
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Through AKC, Khan guides dancers, from across the globe, to find the moment of truth in their practice. That pursuit, he insists, was born both from a place of resistance and persistence. “Looking back, I think I didn’t fit in anywhere; I had roots in Bangladesh, I studied Kathak, and I lived in London; there was in me, a constant sense of displacement. And then many years later, my contemporary dance teacher at the university, urged me to dig deep, and explore who I am. In so many ways, I think that was the birth of my voice. My body was in a state of confusion but slowly, I began to find possibilities of stillness in the chaos of things. It was a hard route to take but I stuck with it.”
Over the last decade, Khan buried himself in the quiet chaos of his studio, a place where he says he is most “at home,” observing the cacophony of life and attempting to give it form, shape, expression in a manner that is authentic and vulnerable. “I think for a while now I’ve been inaccessible to a whole host of dancers except those who work with me,” he says, “It’s just because of the way things were; I think I was just overwhelmed. But I kept—every now and then—meeting dancers mostly from India who’d come to watch how we train, tell me how they feel a sense of displacement; and I was really keen and passionate about finding out what is it that they are seeking.”
It is in that spirit that Khan curated Seeking Satori in November 2022. Last year marked the second AKC Classical Intensive, which offered 12 Kathak and 12 Bharatanatyam dancers the chance to participate in a creative lab with Khan and fellow dancer Mavin Khoo along with a host of other senior artists. Seeking Satori unfolded as a week-long immersive course in Swamimalai, a temple town in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam district. In its second edition—the first was in London—this initiative allowed dancers to find moments of stillness from the chaos, to pause, to reflect, to share, in an endeavour to help them further re-invest and re-immerse in the rigour, and enhance their own relationship with their art form.
Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer, Jyotsna Jagannathan, a student of Bharatanatyam exponent, Malavika Sarukkai, was one of the participants at Swamimalai. Having spent a week at the programme, Jagannathan says, when we spoke to her in the second week of December, she was still reeling from that magical one week. “Meeting Akram bhai was incredible in every sense,” she says, “watching him move (even if it was brief), listening to his life experiences, observing what he is seeking in arts, the value of personal stories, lived experiences and observations of the human condition to draw inspiration for work and using those memories and emotions to find entry into a piece was a very valuable learning experience.”
Joining hands with AKC to enable the Seeking Satori experience in India was Chennai-based Saraswatham Foundation helmed by Bharatanatyam artists, Renjith and Vijna. Vijna Vasudevan says the international collaboration with Khan was “rewarding, humbling and gratifying.” And as participants who also attended the sessions, Vijna adds (speaking also on behalf of her partner, Renjith Babu), “As choreographers, this intensive gave us more conviction to delve further into our creative process; it also helped solidify the idea that immersion with rigour is the foundation for delving deeper into the art.”
A week after we meet Khan, we meet Mavin Khoo, Bharatanatyam, ballet and contemporary artist, scholar and Creative Associate for AKC. He acts as lead rehearsal director and stage manager for AKC, and having travelled the creative course with Khan for more than a decade, is more “bhai” than a colleague to him. “Aside from the way Akram works, which I’m deeply in love with,” Khoo says, “I really love the fact that at the heart of it all, Akram is defined by his mother, his wife, his three children and the three hours of his daily practice.”
Three hours, daily? “Absolutely,” Khoo says, “That’s why I smile when people in the west mourned at the perception of Akram retiring from the stage; the truth is, he will never retire from dance. What is also incredible is the fact that the poetic nature of the message in all his works is subconsciously his mother’s voice, which is why despite being a male, there’s a strong sense of the female and it’s not a contrived, checking-the-box kind of narrative; it’s inherently steeped in who he is.”
In many ways, that simplicity, vulnerability, and the need to shatter the ego to create work that is authentic and transparent, revealing who you really are, is at the core of Akram Khan’s creations—both solo and ensemble. “I am consciously looking at the outside from the inside,” Khan says, “When I create material for work, I am always asking myself the ‘what’ question; ‘What is it that I want to tackle in my work’; honestly, almost always the ‘what’ tends to be universal because artists are constantly reflecting the world in their art and what they are experiencing in their lives. The craft of the choreography lives in the how. The how is my craft.”
Over the last two decades, AKC has created a range of brilliant and thought-provoking productions, such as Until the Lions and Desh, to name a few. Khan’s shows have travelled the world and moved audiences with their simplicity and complexity. He believes his work is really a “collection of accidents” and by being immersed and dedicated to his work, he finds moments of satori. (Satori is a Japanese word in the Zen Buddhist tradition that refers to awakening the consciousness.) “Our process is slow and rigorous, spread over time,” Khan says, referring to his many works, “I like to spend a minimum of three years to create a production; in the first year, the focus is really to hunt and gather material; the second year is all about toying around; it’s like we are in the realm of the absurd; experiment, explore and then in the final year, the actual creation finds form and expression.”
When Khan returns to London, he will be back at the studio to draw up a plan for the year ahead. His production Xenos—about the origins and interpretations of war—was meant to travel to Mumbai in 2020, but the pandemic ruined that plan. Xenos, which also marks his final performance as a dancer, is a very special work not only because of the brilliance of form and expression but also because of the “beauty and horror of the human condition”. It seamlessly segues between classical Kathak and contemporary dance, past and present, mythology and technology—all spaces that Khan is familiar with.
“I am most calm amidst chaos,” he says, “It is perhaps why I lead.” A few weeks ago, AKC announced that the Jungle Book Reimagined team is on the road again. Reinterpreted through the lens of “today’s children—those who will inherit our world and become our future storytellers”—this work reimagines the journey of Mowgli through the eyes of a refugee caught in a world devastated by the impact of climate change. “Creating work for children is hard,” Khan says, “but also the beauty is when they see the truth, they will go silent. And then you know that they have changed, in some way.”
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