Akram Khan

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With his first full-length contemporary solo DESH, Akram Khan is taking the dance community by storm (and monsoon). The dancer-choreographer talks to Edmund Lee about stage fright, his disdain for critics, and the shifting map of world cinema.


“Fear,” says Akram Khan. “Fear is the biggest difference. There’s a lot of fear when you’re on your own.” This is the response which the internationally renowned dancer-choreographer gives me, somewhat surprisingly, when I enquire about the difference between performing solo and collaborating with others in a duet or an ensemble work. The question is especially pertinent if one considers the bewildering fact that Khan’s new piece DESH, which is set to take the Hong Kong stage for two performances this fortnight, is only the first ever full-length contemporary solo piece in his rather distinguished career.

Although Khan has ample experience performing solo works in the north Indian classical dance form of kathak – for which he has practised since the age of seven, has fused with Western contemporary dance with great success down the years, and which has sometimes been mistaken as Khan’s cultural roots (he’s a London-born Bangladeshi) – it still sends shivers down his spine to contemplate being onstage, alone, doing contemporary dance for a whole evening. His first try at making a solo, in 2005, ended up with a duet: the Laurence Olivier Award-winning Zero Degrees, in which Khan and Flemish-Moroccan dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui performed with life-size silicon body-doubles made by sculptor Antony Gormley. Subsequent attempts have met with similar fate – hence his duets with classical dancer Sylvie Guillem (for 2006’s Sacred Monsters) and actress Juliette Binoche (for 2008’s in-i), respectively.

“Every time I attempted a solo, I somehow involved another person,” says Khan, letting out a relieved chuckle. Does it mean that he’s a more confident performer now? “I would say [I’m] fearless. There’s a lot of fear before I’m on stage, but once I’m on stage I’d say I’m fearless – in a small way. Let’s not say ‘fearless’ in a Jet Li way – that’s another kind of…” He pauses momentarily, perhaps becoming aware of the accidental reference that his inner cinephile has made to a certain Jet Li movie, titled Fearless (2006). “You know,” Khan concludes, “before I get on the stage, I’m terrified.”

Behind his shape-shifting body, his masterful technique and his spontaneous charm onstage, lies an implicit anxiety about the future. “I don’t think I’ll be dancing [for] longer than 10 years,” Khan says frankly. In the battle between the fear of performing solo and the desire to satisfy his parents before it’s all too late, the latter has won out. “I felt I’ve gotta do something [for] my parents, because I can’t keep ignoring it. I can’t keep on saying ‘yeah, yeah, mama, I’ll do something in the future, I’m not ready yet.’ And then I thought ‘look, I’m 37…’”

Khan was born to Bangladeshi parents, although he knew very little about Bangladesh from a historical perspective before making DESH, which means ‘homeland’ in Bengali. For the new piece, the second-generation immigrant has partly derived the material from stories of his father, a mathematician who Khan describes as ‘a very interesting character’. “I’m very close to my mother and not to my father,” he says. “My mother is the one who pushed me into creative art and she’s responsible a lot for my upbringing. [At the same time] there’s so much tension between my father and me… that’s where a lot of my creativity comes from. What you see onstage is that tension.”

The tension has seen Khan, who considers DESH his most autobiographical work to date, adopting the child’s perspective in a story about three generations in the family (Khan’s father, himself and his niece). There is, however, more to the back story. When Khan and his collaborators took a 10-day trip to Bangladesh to research for the piece last year, they grew obsessed with the street children. “We felt bad actually,” he recalls, “because all of us were filming them with our iPhones – as if they were some kind of museum pieces. We felt like we were really bad tourists.”

On the third day, Khan came across a shoeless little boy who was wearing just a pair of shorts and a torn T-shirt. “I loved his face and I started to film him very closely. I was looking into his eyes and I kind of got spooked by them, ’cause he’s so confident.” As Khan felt worse and worse, eventually putting away his phone, something unexpected happened. “As I did that, the boy pulled his phone out of his shorts and started filming me! I found it an extraordinary exchange, a very simple human exchange. The fact that he had no money, maybe, but he’s able to afford a phone…” After he’s temporarily reduced to perplexed rambling, Khan says: “From that day on, everything changed for us. I found the eyes of the Bangladeshi children fascinating, and through their eyes is how we connected to Bangladesh.”

With its rich story content and cultural references, DESH may be rightly regarded as a one-man dance theatre work. It is, by Khan’s own admission, less of a choreographer’s piece than it is a director’s piece; indeed, the dancer-choreographer has gone so far as to say that ‘choreography is not the essence of the work’. When asked about his choreographic style, Khan explains that he’s trying not to have one. “But actually,” he says, “one of my greatest heroes was always playing with the notion of form and formlessness: to be formless within form and to have form within formlessness. And that was Bruce Lee! He was one of my greatest heroes – him and Muhammad Ali. They’re philosophical and not just athletic. There’s a spirituality in them which, to me, is lost in the world right now.”

I ask Khan about his relationship with the theatre format, and his reflection seems to go in all sorts of directions: he mentions his perpetual swing between movement and narrative, his changes in format over the past 11 years (from small solo to full-length quintet to bigger groups and back to duets), and his occasional shift towards the abstract. Finally, Khan abruptly collects himself and declares in an assured tone: “Funnily enough a lot of my works have influences in a cinematic sense,” he says. “I’m a big follower of films – especially art films. I draw a lot from that.” Since my years as a film journalist have shown me countless people who boast about their taste for the arthouse before citing, say, Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese as their idol, I ask Khan to name his favourites.

“I have a lot. I have a lot. There’s Satyajit Ray, the Bengali film director who passed away.” He stops, and I move on to my next question to avoid further embarrassment, only to be disrupted when I’m more than halfway in. “There’s Wong Kar-wai,” Khan says casually. “I also like, uh, what’s his name…? Kim Ki-duk, from South Korea. And there’s… um… ah… how do you say it… [Hirokazu] Kore-eda, the Japanese film director.” I tell him the coincidence that I wrote my masters thesis on Kore-eda. “Ah! Oh really? Wow!” Khan is lost for words for a second, before enthusing: “At the moment, he’s really someone I’m fascinated by. I mean, I love Still Walking (2008) and I love Nobody Knows (2004).”

At the risk of turning our interview into a nerdy film chat, I ask the choreographer about his interest in arthouse cinema. “I mean, I [also] like American films, but it’s like enjoying McDonald’s,” he says. “Sometimes, you know, I have this craving for McDonald’s – very rarely, but it does happen, unfortunately – and American films are like that to me.” Khan then turns to give me an industry forecast. “Of course, the art films are different but I think Europe and America have had its time. I think it’s the time for Asia, where fascinating things are happening, and Africa, where a lot will be happening. There’s a lot happening within the arts sector in countries like India and China – and not just financially and economically.”

Unsurprisingly, Khan’s affection for world cinema was the deciding factor behind his collaboration with feted art director Tim Yip. “Do you know how we met?” Khan asks me, with noticeable excitement in his voice. Turns out it happened at an after-party for in-i in China. “I was sitting with a lot of people at a big table and opposite me is a man wearing a cap. He leaned over and asked who I want to work with in the future, and I said ‘ah, my producer Farooq Chaudhry and I would like to work with this guy who did the visual design for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. God, I’d love to work with him’. And he put out his hand and said ‘fine, I’ll do it’.” Khan giggles. “But I didn’t know it was him!”

A hugely fruitful dialogue has developed between the two artists, who Khan describes as having ‘a very similar way of behaving and approaching other human beings’. The Hong Kong native’s visual design for DESH has since dazzled more than a few critics and, more importantly, helped to complete Khan’s impressionistic quest into his personal history and identity. The work represents something he’s been wanting to do for his home country, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary of independence this year. “The Bangladeshi community, the language Bengali and the culture of Bangladeshi people have always been marginalised,” says Khan. “All the media around the world ever showed about Bangladesh is about blood and poverty, but Bangladesh is so much more than that.”

Since its world premiere in Leicester in mid-September, DESH has been lauded by many major publications as ‘undoubtedly [one of] the best pieces that [he] has created’ (New York Times), and ‘the most urgent, beautiful and confident work of his career’ (The Guardian). But Khan, whose collaborations with Sylvie Guillem and Juliette Binoche were dismissed by some quarters as slight, vanity projects, is unmoved. “You shouldn’t take [the] media seriously,” he warns me. “I don’t trust the critics anymore. I think the media have caused a lot of destruction in the world, a lot of brainwashing. It [looks] very dangerous to me that the world media has become a conglomerate run by Western white, very powerful rich men.” Khan claims that he never learns anything from his own reviews in England and America. “You know, all the Lady Gagas who’re becoming famous… it’s really annoying to me. I think we’ve become very superficial.”

So has he developed any new insight to reconcile his Bangladeshi descent and British cultural upbringing through DESH? “No, no. You know why? I need another six months – maybe a year – before I can understand. When you… do you have a child?” No. “When you have a child – I mean, I don’t have a child, I’m imagining – when you have a child, it takes you a few years to realise before the shock sweeps over you; you realise there’s actually a human being in your arms. And it’s the same with a piece. For me, I need some space away from it to reflect and really understand it, to be a witness of my own process.”

After DESH, Khan will next be working on a group piece on Igor Stravinsky (‘maybe The Rite of Spring’), and is also looking to make a film in 2012. “I’d love Kore-eda to make it for me, to direct it for me. That’d be my dream,” his voice trails off briefly, “but, ah, there are several film directors that I like also: there’s Elia Suleiman – have you seen his work?” I haven’t yet. “You must go if you haven’t.” Khan is, again, speaking like a film buff who can’t stop. “It’s called The Time That Remains (2009). It’s really stunning, really interesting. And… I’m also researching for several projects right now, but I can’t really mention them.” Then the lifelong Londoner kind of does. “I have a very big project next year in the summer.” He takes a pause, before adding: “Anyway, we’ll see!”

DESH is at Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium on Nov 18 and 19. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.

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