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Akram Khan’s Kaash: the release of energy

Keith Gallasch: Akram Khan, Kaash

Akram Khan Akram Khan
The paucity of international contemporary dance companies touring to Australia (a handful at arts festivals aside) was brought home by the visit from the UK of the Akram Khan Company and the excitement and dialogue it generated. The company was also resident at the University of Western Sydney and presented different programs at the Sydney Opera House and Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

In her handy summation of Khan’s career and philosophy, “Clarity within chaos” (Dance Theatre Journal, Vol 18, No 1, 2002), Preeti Vasudevan reports that the 28 year-old Khan was born in South London into the Bengali community there, dancing from 3 years of age and beginning with kathak, classical dance from northern India and Pakistan, at the age of 7. At 21 he decided to train in contemporary dance and, subsequently to work at its integration with kathak. Khan says in the interview, “What I’m exploring is kathak, the dynamics and energies of kathak. It is kathak that informs the contemporary.” He conceptualises this classical dance as clarity and contemporary dance as chaotic-not in a sense of formlessness, but, somewhat akin to Chaos Theory, in terms of the invisibility of its borders. “It is an unfortunate misconception that [contemporary dance] has no boundaries. the difference is that you cannot see them...[but] you know [they] are there...”

Khan continues to perform kathak in the UK and India, but his fame has primarily emerged from the contemporary work with his company, a powerful perpetual motion motor whose collective speed reminded me of nothing less than the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass-with their enormous, continuous flow of notes that for all the rapidity of their playing conveys a transcendent, subtle shifting of states. There are significant changes of pace and form in the 3 sections of Kaash (the 2002 work presented in Sydney), but the overall impression is of a mesmeric totality incorporating intense solo moments (Khan, reciting and demonstrating movement instructions from kathak focused on its gestural vocabulary) and remarkable collective harmony (a precision rarely seen in this country). From within this flow, which like Chaos Theory’s companion Complexity suggests a system working at optimum but ever on the edge, come strikingly memorable moments as dancers rapidly traverse the stage, spin and come to a sudden, curiously unabrupt halt, a sheer stillness, or, a little later, with the rhythms of the movement still in their bodies, an almost indiscernable rocking.

The contemplative blend of unleashed energy and overarching form is embodied too in Nitin Sawhney’s musical composition for Kaash. The dance corresponds closely to its rhythms, ecstatically in the bursts of tabla-driven propulsion. The viscerality of the percussion is layered with sustained notes sounding like they have been scraped from the edges of small gongs and cymbals, sometimes reverberating in harmony with the pulsing, barely stilled bodies of the dancers. It’s a composition that, like the dance, fuses the classical and the contemporary with confident ease.

The context for Kaash is an open performing space forward of a huge work of art by Anish Kapoor-a painting of a framed, huge black hole. In the Kapoor manner it’s often difficult to see where this emptiness begins, the line between presence and absence constantly shifting and blurring, a state amplified by transformations of colour and density wrought by a superb lighting design.

This is no mere backdrop. Not only does it provide a parallel to the shifting energies of the dance, but it also reflects the thematic preoccupations of the choreography. Khann says, “‘Kaash’ means ‘if’ and I am basing it on the concept of Shiva. Shiva in Hindu religion is the destroyer and restorer of order. Shiva in Hebrew means the number 7. Seven is close to the rhythm and music modes of Indian classical that works with energy...What if you put a dancer in an ice cube and then the energy is released when the cube melts? That’s what Shiva is about” (Vasudevan).

Nor is Kapoor’s painting ignored by the dancers. In a work that is otherwise highly formalised the opening and closing moments of Kaash have the kind of abstract theatricality you’d expect from Saburo Tehsigawa. We arrive in the theatre to find a performer gazing into Kapoor’s creation, in turn therefore directing our own gaze, initiating the contemplation that follows. At the end of the performance one of the dancers becomes totally preoccupied with this vast, beautiful but disturbing portrait of sheer flatness and depth, his body swaying left to right, almost as if to fall, to be caught by his comrades in this dangerous reverie. Blackout.

I hope that this visit will inspire a producer or an arts festival director to bring the company to Australia again; in the meantime we can only be grateful to the Sydney Opera House, the Brisbane Powerhouse and the British Council for giving us a rare glimpse of a work of bracing and contemplative totality and cultural resonance.

Akram Khan Company, Kaash, The Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Aug 20-24

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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