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Akram Khan Company

'Kaash' ('What if?')

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September 18, 2003 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

Sometimes it's best to go to something without any expectations.

I almost wish I hadn't heard so much about the ground-breaking, astonishing new genius of modern dance, Akram Khan, whose one-night only performance was part of an impressive lineup for the first San Francisco International Arts Festival at the Yerba Buena Center.

Not to detract from Khan's choreography, which was a well-structured fusion of modern and Indian dance with hip-hop speed and sensibility thrown in for good measure. The evening length "Kaash" was a work, however, that left me unmoved, and I had been hoping to be intensely moved.

Khan has a distinctive style going for him, and his dancers are more than up to the challenging complexity and speed of his choreography, but I'm rather more inclined to agree with Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times, who observes that he is young. "There is time for him to live up to the claims."

"Kaash," which means "What if" in Hindu, is a fairly solid twenty-minute piece masquerading as an evening-length work. The concepts are interesting, but there seems not to be enough developed material to sustain the hour-long show. It's Khan's first foray into longer works, though, and there are lots of ideas going on here -- enough both to assure the viewer that he has plenty to say and to spark off mental meanderings of one's own.

Khan starts his piece out, not with a bang, but instead stealing up on us. As the audience mills around before the show, slugging down the last sip of coffee, chatting with friends, and clogging the aisles, a single dancer slips almost unnoticed onstage and stands stock-still with his back to the crowd contemplating a dark cyc. I was reminded of Verdi's opera "La Traviata," whose overture doesn't so much demand attention, as creep under one's skin. The idea with both the "Traviata's" and "Kaash's" overtures is to attract attention with the understated feeling that something is about to happen, and, incredibly, it works like a charm. A gradual hush falls over the crowd as they take notice, and this alone sets a powerful scene.

With all due respect to Khan's Kathak influences, the style here strikes me as much more industrial than classical Indian. The detailed delicate hands and sinuous arms certainly point to a training in classical dance, but the actual movements themselves have a mechanized feel, thrown into relief by the way in which repeated phrases drift in and out of consonance with each other, like windshield wipers slightly out of sync.

Dancers Khan, Eulalia Ayguade, Moya Michael, Inn Pang Ooi and Shanell Winlock are fearless and indefatigable, and the crispness of their precise technique makes for truly pleasant watching. In the absence of audible cues, the gestalt that they achieved in matching each other's dynamical shifts created a kind of abstract beauty all its own.

But although the piece obviously had structure, Khan's structural conceit itself was not immediately clear to me. Reading the program notes later, I found that each rhythmical pattern represented an Indian god: a 3 beat pattern was Ganesh, 4 beats were Krishna, and 7 beats Shiva. This kind of rhythmical complexity, however, was not something I was equipped to notice without a professional Kathak dancer beside me.

More intriguing to me was the idea of how Khan's own personal history helped to form the style he is so well-known for. In "Kaash" one senses the fusion of cultures experienced by a man whose parents came from Bangladesh, but who himself grew up in London. One also senses the division of cultural loyalties that many people with this mixture of backgrounds feel -- as if they had a foot in each culture without truly belonging to either. Khan wears his Southeast Asian heritage proudly, but there is a conscious effort to place it in the context of, and in contrast with, a modern, industrial society.

The soft edged black rectangle that dominates the cyc suggests both timelessness and limitless space, which is faintly, unsettlingly seventies, especially when Nitin Sawhney's score heads in the direction of the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."

And somewhere at around the halfway mark, I began to long for the denouement. Where were we going? And in a very non-sarcastic, honestly curious way, I wanted to know, what was the point? There were pieces I seemed to be missing somehow. The insistent overlapping voices whispering in our ears, "If only I had done this instead of that... if only I had said what I wanted to say ... if only I'd bought two instead of one..." made me think wryly, "If only I had read the program notes before this."

"Kaash" is a solid, well-crafted work, and one can never object to solid well-crafted ballets. But because he has been elevated to a position above his contemporaries, one can't help but compare his work with that of his colleagues. Is it fast? Yes, but no more so than the incredible kinetics of Edouard Locke's LaLaLa Human Steps. Does he delve deeply within to get at the core of movement? Certainly, but not more than Alonzo King of LINES Contemporary Ballet. Are there unexpectedly beautiful moments? Sure, but not any more surprising than might be seen at a performance of AXIS Dance Company.

Khan is good. He'll get even better, no doubt. But, as for genius, who was ever really a true genius at twenty-seven? We'll have to keep checking back.

Edited by Holly Messitt.

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