Akram Khan Tackles Kung Fu for Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise

The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed

Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed,
a new venue in New York City.

What attracted you to this project?

I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee when I was 13 or 14. What attracted me was his spiritual approach to martial arts, not the macho approach. I don't consider martial arts as necessarily a fighting tool. I consider it a spiritual tool.

What do the dancers need in order to do this work?

Graham. Strength in the center. But what is more important is the mind-set. I want them to embody the spirit and focus of the martial arts—to be able to dance, move, but not give away that they're dancers.

The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal

Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed

How did you bring in the kung fu vocabulary?

Last fall we spent time with Zhang Jun, a former Shaolin monk who is the martial arts director of the production, and learned some kung fu, like the Tiger [tightens his hand into a claw]. But I've added things. This is Indian [shows the traditional lotus shape]. Also, I asked Jun to give me 30 images—30 Instagram positions. So there is choreography, but I want the audience to feel like they're watching somebody possessed.

Sia is a commercial artist and The Shed is huge. How do you navigate that from your point of view as an artist?

I think my generation of artists is one of the first to break out into other genres. We grew up with Michael Jackson. When I hear Sia, her craft is unbelievable, her poetry is beautiful. Artists like Hofesh Shechter, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, myself and Crystal Pite, we're not afraid of other genres. We're already out of the box. We don't belong only to the dance world anymore.

Khan (left) and Alex Poots, artistic director of The Shed

Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed

You are also doing your own new work, Outwitting the Devil, in July in Stuttgart. Is there a storyline for that?

I love the painting The First Supper, by Susan Dorothea White; it's all women of different cultures. It's a takeoff on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, which I couldn't relate to because they're all white. In Susan's painting, an aboriginal woman sits in Jesus' place. The one in Judas' place is a white woman with a Coke can. It's about resources, food and water.

Who's the devil?

The devil is us—humans, our species. We are the cancer for the earth. We're so arrogant in our belief that we can control nature. Something about the rich and the poor is going into Outwitting the Devil. Who gets to sit at the table is the question.

Are you relieved to not be dancing the full-length Xenos anymore?

I can't stop yet! I tour with Xenos until November 2020.

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