September 10-13, 2003 – Arden
Theater, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philadelphia
view still photos from Akram Khan’s ‘Kaash,’ you would instantly recognize
choreographer is an artist who knows
a lot about intimate spatial composition. Even before the dance begins,
Khan visually commands: a single dancer, Inn Pang Ooi, onstage, back to
the audience, against a huge gauzy edged, matted frame flanking the back
wall of the Haas Stage in the Arden Theatre, making it look cavernous.
By the will of Pang Ooi’s complete stillness, the
usual rustle of a Philadelphia audience finally settles to complete silence.
After a pause another dancer enters and walks up to Ooi, whispers something;
and then a sudden blackout; and with an orchestral crash, so begins ‘Kaash’
(‘If’ in Hindu).
Like Merce Cunningham, Khan presents the yang of
movement around stillness. ‘Kaash’ is alternately a meditation on tranquility,
or is disturbed or enlightened by lacerating sound and furious dance.
There is a program note from Khan that speaks to “the spaces between musical
phrases and the empty spaces in space itself contain all the mysteries
of their eventual forms.”
The ebb and flow of Khan’s ensemble of 5 suggest order and disorder. The
geometry is simple, but many of these configurations seem arrestingly
frozen out of time. This ensemble has winning spiritual energy- joining
Pang Ooi are Eulalia Ayguade, Moya Michael, Shanell Winlock and Khan-
the obvious grand master of this style.
Later, the lights come up on the now blood red backdrop (arresting set
design by Anish Kapoor and lighting design by Aideen Malone) with Khan
and three other dancers in a line, executing agitated, crouch-position
movements, arms slicing the air, that have the feel of martial arts. These
tight phrases are eventually fractured, with the dancers flailing around,
disconnected to each other’s movement and looking menaced by the sound
Nitin Sawhney’s alternately concussive and whispering score effectively
narrates much of the geometry onstage and gets the audience accustomed
to the jarring stillness breaking out into bombast. Sawhney’s layered
voice and sound effects give Khan a rhythmic scale to float over, follow
and/or penetrate with often stunning choreography. Additional music is
by whispery staccato vocals of John Oswald’s familiar ‘Spectre,’ performed
by the Kronos Quartet, and is introduced both early and later when Khan
sings these passages as basic demonstration of his expressionist style
of sacred Indian dance, when he brings us into his intimate artistic realm.
Already an international hit, Khan has now toured ‘Kaash’ in several countries
all to critical acclaim and deserved appreciation for what the choreographer
has achieved. Khan, a master of Kathak, the ancient and sacred dances
of Northern India, has fused the mystical evocations of those disciplines
with a contemporary look and style. This is rare, but he is not the first
to do so. Uday Shankar, Ravi’s brother, brought western ideas to traditional
sacred dance, which was largely dismissed and criticized in India at the
it is doubly hard to try to dissect my impatience with this work. At its
best ‘Kaash’ is like dance time travel -- a modern and ancient dialogue
that essays dance we haven’t seen before. These dances are allusive to
the dances of Siva, controlled and repetitive for a higher spiritual purpose-
ideally, transcendental for the performer.
the dancers, dressed in long black tunics spiked at the knee, introduce
emotional abandon into this movement, eventually bringing not a gimmick,
but a revisionist philosophy to the culturally sacred. The index finger
locked to the thumb with the remaining fingers splayed out is a signature
gesture in classic Indian dance and Khan uses such cultural touchstones
with dramatic effect. And a central solo by a female dancer bathed in
blue light, has her writhing in grotesquely beautiful bodyscapes.
His contrasts are dramatic, but finally, just jarring and detract from
his overall meditative theme. Sacred Indian dances are often modulated
repetition and are joyously meditative, so creating a cross-cultural mix
would suggest more variations from both ends of Khan’s disciplines. In
his last movement Khan moves toward this with steps and gestures added
to each circular pass by the dancers.
Even though I admired Khan’s conviction, I have
to admit to a certain disappointment in execution. No matter what style
of dance: sacred, classical, ancient, modern – intended unison work shouldn’t
look muddy as it did here at several points in this program. Khan’s crouching
angles were intriguing but he took them nowhere, and there was little
variation, more like a runner’s stretch. All of this work could be clarified
sturdier technique – the turns should be sharper so they could be better
seen, the bounding movements from a kneeled position should be done with
more attack and with ending clarity.
Also questionable to me was his much hyped speed in the choreography,
mentioned in much of the press for ‘Kaash.’ We’ve seen athleticism reach
Mach-speed with such groups as Nederland Dans Theatre II, Urban Tap, and
many Philadelphia troupes like the Koresh Dance Company and the jaw-dropping
velocity of Rennie Harris PureMovement; so this was a disappointment –
that Khan’s dancers didn’t even approach the level of accuracy in speed
that has become common on the dance stage.
Still, these technical points obviously didn’t distract from Khan’s overall
hypnotic appeal with the audience (not to mention most critics) that rose
at the end of the performance, knowing they were seeing a work of art.
Edited by Jeff.
Please join the discussion
in our forum.