Akram Khan Company

April 23, 2008

Akram Khan Company

City Center, NYC

April 23–27, 2008

Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

About the only thing that might spoil watching Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui dance zero degrees is sitting behind a very tall man. To have that offering of glorious, unified space, light, and imagery intruded upon feels painful. Yet the work’s integrity and strength cannot be diminished. Unlike bahok, the season’s other U.S. premiere, zero degrees stands as a concept flawlessly realized by its team of collaborators—Nitin Sawhney (music), Mikki Kunttu (lighting), Antony Gormley (sculpture), Kei Ito (costumes), and the two master dancer-choreographers. Sawhney’s deep score is performed live, and with excellence, by Laura Anstee, Coordt Linke, Faheem Mazhar, and Alies Sluiter.

    Two incidents form the zero point, if you will, from which zero degrees proceeds: the Bengali Khan (a London-born British citizen) having his passport confiscated by Indian border guards, and his memory of discovering a dead body on an Indian train. We learn of the first incident through a kind of seated Kathak in which the men—side-by-side and perfectly synchronized, vocally and physically—narrate the story while infusing it with crisp, vivid gestures. We can almost see the passport passing from guard to guard and feel Khan’s desperation: “My eyes were like a hawk!” Channeling Khan’s frightening experience through an artificial version of a highly structured, stylized classical dance form and having the whole thing rendered by two different bodies creates both distance and the scope required to see into that distance.

    The Flemish-Moroccan Cherkaoui—artistic director of Belgium’s Les Ballets C. de la B.—contributes his amalgam of dance knowledge, in particular his ability to contort his body beyond reason. The sinuous twining and whirling and sometimes hearty sparring of the men give zero degrees its visual opulence while Cherkaoui’s playful, astonishing contortions best underscore the work’s preoccupation with the twin poles of embodiment and transcendence.

    Gormley’s two dummies—matter-of-fact sculptures of a human male body—serve as the set, dance partners, punching bags, and mirrors or stand-ins for the living dancers. Upright, they cast their own stark, soldier-straight shadows; reclining, they could be blissfully resting in a yoga pose. They trick the mind—so inert and yet so alive with possibility, the possibilities that Khan and Cherkaoui demonstrate. This must be what spooked—and intrigued—Khan when he found the corpse on his train.

    Presented on a separate program, bahok (“carrier”) depicts a train station waiting room filled with Khan’s multicultural cast, including dancers from the National Ballet of China. One woman appears lost—not merely in the geographic sense—and increasingly disturbed. Other characters and stories are lightly suggested. A clacking arrivals/departures sign flips its letters, intermittently forming individual words, titles, phrases, and sentences that help the audience locate itself in a piece about being out of sync. As a visual and dramatic element, the sign works fine. The wonderful dancers, at the mercy of time and cellphones, flip and spin just as quickly and efficiently as that sign, and we get the point about the frantic scramble of language(s) in which clarity breaks through only now and then.

    But bahok, although wonderfully danced, feels obvious and ultimately more sentimental than convincing, particularly in comparison to the total achievement of zero degrees.  And the absence of the sublime Khan from his cast of eight is a loss that will leave viewers longing.

(Photo Courtesy City Center)