East and West Meet in the Body of Akram Khan

October 26, 2008

One of the most intriguing dance artists on the international scene today, Akram Khan is known for his fusion of the classical Indian form of Kathak with contemporary dance. As a performer, Khan is a riveting mixture of power, speed, and intricacy. As a choreographer, he stages stark visual landscapes populated by witty or mysterious figures. He embodies the kind of cultural intersection that is the focus of this issue.


Born to a Bangladeshi family in London, Khan became a Kathak prodigy as a child and toured with Peter Brook’s Mahabharata as a teenager. After attending De Montfort University in Leicester, he switched to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds and later studied at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s school in Brussels. His first performance at London’s Dance Umbrella heralded a new talent. In 2002,
Dance Magazine named him a “25 to Watch.” Many awards and critical raves later, he is now, at 34, an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and travels the world. His most recent U.S. appearance was at New York City Center, where he performed the acclaimed Zero Degrees, a duet with European choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. He also presented his funny, magical Bahok, which mixed his own company with three dancers from National Ballet of China. He has collaborated with superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem (see “Vital Signs,” May 2007), and is currently working with French actress Juliette Binoche on a duet, In-I, that will come to Montréal’s DanseDanse in January and the Brooklyn Academy of Music next fall. Wendy Perron recently spoke with Khan by phone.


How old were when you started studying Kathak?
I started studying folk dance at 3, Kathak at 7.

Were you part of a Bangladeshi community where a lot of kids were doing these things?
No. I was the only Bangladeshi. The others were Indian. I was also the only boy, so I felt very special. My parents organized little get-together performances, and I would play Indian tabla (drum). That’s where I got my rhythm training.

When was the first time you experienced contemporary dance?
It was by accident. I was becoming claustrophobic with my Indian teacher; the pressure was suffocating. I needed change, I needed to evolve. I didn’t want to become what they wanted me to become, I wanted to find out who I would become by my own consequences, not someone else’s. So I “ran away” and went to audition for the University in Leicester. I saw “contemporary dance” on the prospectus and didn’t know what it meant. I remember going to the library because I got there early, and I saw Pina Bausch and DV8 on video. I’d never seen contemporary dance, and I was completely horrified. But at the same time I asked myself, “Then why am I still watching it?” I didn’t know you were allowed to be provocative in the arts. But I could see the poetry in it, the poetry in the violence, in the truth.

Was there a moment when you felt you could combine Kathak with this new kind of dance?
I can’t take credit for that. Gregory Nash was working for Dance Umbrella with Val Borne and said, “Would you like to share an evening? You could do your classical solo.” I told them I had a 10-minute solo for my exam, Loose in Flight. They took a big risk because they hadn’t seen it. Right after the show they came up to me and asked, “Do you know what you have?” And I said, “I don’t understand what you mean.” And they said, “Do you recognize that you’re creating a movement language?” And I said, “I’m just doing what I do instinctively, I just put something together.” And they said, “No, no, no, you have something very specific. You’ve broken into something that people have been trying to do for years but have never done convincingly.”

Did they use the word “fusion”?
No, they didn’t. I don’t believe in the word fusion. For me it’s confusion; my body was in a state of confusion. On the one hand my classical teacher was going, “That’s completely wrong. Where’s this alien structure coming from? Why are you extending your hand too far?” And my contemporary teacher was saying, “You’re not doing Graham perfectly. You’re doing the movement but differently from the rest of them.” And so the frustration of two departments, of East and West. I realized my body was making its own choices. Loose in Flight was a reflection of that.

Did your community come to see you dance?
The Bangladeshi here like entertainment like Bollywood. Once I moved into the circle of Western audiences, they wouldn’t come to my show because they felt my venues were too bourgeois. But eventually my generation from the Bangladeshi/Indian/Asian community started coming—from the sculpture world, from the visual arts, theater, film.

Tell me about your project with Juliette Binoche.
We’re doing the final part of a trilogy. I did Zero Degrees with Sidi Larbi, then Sacred Monsters with Sylvie Guillem. This last part is probably the most challenging. Juliette and I are from different worlds, with different interpretations, different everything. We had to find a language of intimacy. That took a long time. It was very violent but very joyful, and very naked emotionally. It brings the humanity out of us.

I thought Bahok was amazingly beautiful. Each dancer was so real. In working with National Ballet of China, were there cultural or artistic barriers?
I was lucky. I had worked with Sylvie just before, so I was starting to understand the ballet body—but Sylvie’s a force of nature. The first two thirds of Bahok we made in the U.K. For the final stage we went to China, and it was really challenging. You have the language issue, the whole rhythm issue, the education issue. But the dancers surprised me. They were so open.

How did you choose the three ballet dancers?
I chose the dancers who were mostly in the back, who were not given the chance to be stars. They were the ones that wanted it so badly. I’m interested in the ones who are dying to be seen because they have something to say.

You had some of them speaking onstage. Were they OK with that?
In rehearsals I wanted everyone to tell an intimate story, so I started telling my story. It was extremely intimate, and they were shocked by it. But because I gave myself permission, they gave themselves permission. It has a kind of a domino effect.

How did the idea for
come about?
When I was in Japan I was on the lift [elevator]. A Japanese woman got on, an African guy got on, and I couldn’t communicate with them. We were all strangers. But I wanted to ask the Japanese girl, “Where did you get this beautiful kimono? What does it signify?” and the African guy, “What material is that hat?” But people don’t communicate unless they have to, because maybe they’re afraid. Then the lift got stuck and after one minute of silence everybody broke out talking to each other. And I thought, “Aha, in a moment of crisis, everybody has to come together, no matter what.” Everything goes out the window—the language and cultures—and the human being gets in through the window.

What are you working on now with your company?
Our next project is in Abu Dhabi. I will use performers entirely from the Arab world—from Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey. Some of them will be dancers, some will be poets, musicians, actors, gymnasts.

You really reach out to other nationalities, other cultures. What makes you do that?
The more you learn about other cultures, the more you learn about yourself. I try to find the common denominator, the moments when we realize that we are separated by education but so similar. When a child dies, in every country every mother will cry. I’m fascinated by storytelling, especially mythology, and how it differs with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Zero Degrees
was highly praised. When you began it, did you have a sense of where you were going with that cross-cultural project?
I was simply curious. Sidi Larbi and I started off as friends (we share Muslim roots), and we were fascinated by each other’s hands, and how we worked with hands. The understanding of cross-cultural came after.

What were some of your other influences when you were growing up?
I was in awe of comic-book superheroes because I could never be them—they were white and I was brown—and that’s what actually, funnily enough, this duet with Juliette Binoche is about. It’s about a relationship, but also it’s a confrontation of me wanting to be white as a child. I was so aware of the difference of color, especially through comic books. The guy was always white—Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Men—and the heroine was white and blonde. When Michael Jackson came along with Thriller, my world changed. I thought, there’s hope. He’s closer to my color.

What do you see as the role of art in society?
Art goes beyond cultural differences, beyond religion; it transcends all these barriers. For me it’s the moment of truth. Art is a way of putting life into a more heightened place. When it’s contained in a theater it somehow becomes more poetic.



Photo by Tristam Kenton, Courtesy AKDC