Ahead of his performance at The Park New Festival, the British dancer-choreographer discusses new projects, collaborations with film directors and why retirement has crossed his mind.
Three years ago, Akram Khan had found himself in an unfamiliar position—his feet up on a stool and his dancing shoes packed away. The internationally-renowned dancer, and one of Britain’s most influential choreographers, had ruptured his Achilles tendon while rehearsing with ballerina Sylvie Guillem for a performance of Sacred Monsters. He remembers how anxious he had felt, his confidence shaken. It was also then, he says, that he realised his dancing days could be numbered. “As you grow older, your body takes a lot longer to heal. I couldn’t dance for over six months. Now that I’ve hit my 40s, I know I can’t keep pushing it. And I don’t want to compromise with my dance,” says Khan, adding, “In four years, I plan to transition into a full-time choreographer.” This tip-off makes his India tour this month all the more special. Khan will be presenting Torobaka, his new collaboration with Spanish flamenco dancer Israel Galván, as part of The Park New Festival, to be held across six cities.
The 41-year-old is on his way back from a holiday in Corfu, tuckered out from days of swimming, when we get him on the telephone. Even as he murmurs to his sleepy two-year-old daughter, Sayuri, he tells me he was never keen on doing a fusion of flamenco and kathak. “People told me ‘look at the connection’, but that wasn’t enough,” he explains. Things changed, however, when he caught a performance by Galván in London. “It was unique; he was like a wild animal on stage, but extremely sophisticated,” Khan reveals, adding how he’d felt that the Spaniard had shattered the tradition and reconstructed the form. “While I’m interested in bringing beauty out of chaos, he is the opposite.”
The admiration did not always translate into calm rehearsals though. “He had never collaborated with anyone and being in each other’s territory was challenging. We had plenty of arguments—polite ones in English and more aggressive disagreements in our own languages, with me speaking Bengali and he Spanish,” Khan laughs. What evolved is a 70-minute performance, which takes its name from Toto-Vaca, a Maori-inspired phonetic poem by Tristan Tzara. Structured like a face-off between the bull (toro) and the cow (vaca)—both sacred animals in the dancers’ traditions—it also represents a coming together of dance styles, which he describes as being “purely
Finding a new language
In fact, ‘movement’ has been a part of Khan’s life from an early age. A fan of Michael Jackson (“I never walked down the street, I danced”) and Fred Astaire, he says his mother enrolled him for kathak classes with Pratap Pawar, a disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, to give him “a sense of discipline, rigour and a way to channel my energy”. But it wasn’t until he went off to college, at De Montfort University in Leicester, that the direction of his life changed. Having opted for contemporary dance, despite not knowing what it was, Khan says he had rented a couple of videos—DV8 Physical Theatre and Pina Bausch—to prepare for class. Watching them, however, made him angry. “The question that popped up was ‘why did I not know of this dance form?’ That made me really upset,” he remembers. However, he soon made up with hours of practice, where his classical training merged with his new-found love to create a new language. Performances and accolades culminated in 2000 with him teaming up with arts manager Farooq Chaudhry to launch the Akram Khan Company. “Choreography is not limited solely to my body. And by then I wanted to explore it in other bodies, too,” says Khan, who confesses to being inspired by the late Chandralekha, kathak dancer Kumudini Lakhia and Pina Bausch.
Lessons from the crib
Today, he has an impressive body of work—both with his own company (like Desh, the biographical work that won the Olivier Award in 2012) and high-profile collaborations with artistes including sculptor Anish Kapoor, actress Juliette Binoche and singer Kylie Minogue. Up next for the choreographer is Until The Lions, a revisiting of the story of Amba from the Mahabharata. To premiere next January, this work, he is certain, is going to be epic. “With three dancers, including me, and four musicians, it is my first feminist piece (inspired by the poetry of Paris-based poet Karthika Nair). Since I had my daughter, I’ve tried to see the world from her perspective, and it is scary. This is one of the reasons I returned to something very close to my heart, the Mahabharata. I’ve always been struck by the female characters who are pillars of strength, endurance and intelligence,” he says. With participation by Tim Yip, the Oscar-winning art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he promises a visual spectacle that will incorporate different genres of movement, including some inspired by kalari. With rehearsals going late into the night, who brings the voice of reason? “My wife, Yuko Inoue, gives me intelligent and often brutal opinions,” he says. A dancer in her own right, Inoue, who is currently enjoying cuddling their eight-month-old son Kenzo, has never performed with him “because she never thought I was worthy enough,” he jokes. Also in the pipeline is a production of Giselle for the English National Ballet. There is a hush-hush film, too, along with the Big Dance (a first-of-its-kind event at Trafalgar Square with 1,000 dancers) and a short film based on Desh, which he will direct and act in.
Future in films
As it turns out, films, always a fascination with Khan, could well play a large part in his life in the years to come. In fact, his passion for dance as a form of narration springs from this love. As he prepares to move away from his life as a dancer, he says films and theatre are genres he’d like to explore. “I am a fan of the works of directors like Pawe? Pawlikowski, Wong Kar-wai and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and I would like to collaborate with them. I’ve already made contact with some of them; we just need to find the right moment,” he says, stressing that it is only when he puts himself in unfamiliar territory and works with another artiste can he learn to explore his craft differently. By now, Sayuri is beginning to stir, and juggling a phone and a baby is becoming a task. “I’m looking forward to the tour—it’s the only time I can escape changing nappies. But seriously, it’s also when I get some me time, to listen to Rashid Khan, eat some ice cream and do my homework for my next project,” he concludes.
Catch Torobaka on September 24, at 7 pm, at Sir Mutha Hall.
Surya Praphulla Kumar