Akram Khan


by Lewis Whittington

September 10-13, 2003 – Arden Theater, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philadelphia

If you view still photos from Akram Khan’s ‘Kaash,’ you would instantly recognize that this 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 and light.

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 time.

So 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.

Eventually 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.

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