I first saw Akram Khan back in 1996 when he was still only 21, at Dance Umbrella’s ‘Percussive Feet’ showcase at the Cochrane Theatre, where he performed a kathak solo and a contemporary composition, Loose in Flight, and was striking for his concentrated focus and for his razor-sharp precision and dexterity – qualities derived, perhaps, from his training in kathak, a usually solo style that blends fluid motion with rhythmic exactness.
Since then he has followed a singular path, training at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and taking up a residency earlier this year at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Parts school in Brussels. He’s also performed at Woking Dance Umbrella (1996, 1998), with Jonathan Burrows in the 1999 ‘Desert Steps’ programme marking the 50th birthday of composer Kevin Volans, and with Mavin Khoo in No Male Egos (1999).
You get an idea of that journey from his recent mixed programme at Dance Umbrella. Kathak remains a central though not always discernible reference in Khan’s work, and as if to emphasise that point of departure, this show opened with a classical musical item, Khan clapping and chanting bols (rhythmic spoken syllables) in an improvised dialogue with tabla player Vishnu Sahai, based on a time cycle (taal) of nine-and-a-half beats.
Next came a short film version of Loose in Flight, made for Channel 4 in 1999. Within a derelict industrial setting, this rapid-edit montage shows Khan starting from and returning to a held kathak position, a position which between times collapses and breaks, so that Khan appears like an energised puppet alternately cutting loose from and being reined in by its strings.
Fix, another solo, is quite simply transfixing. Created earlier this year with funds from the Jerwood Choreography Award, it’s set to Nitin Sawhney’s coolly urban score, short riffs and fleeting themes gusting across the stage, underpinned by sparse but funky rhythms. Khan, dressed in loose white, moves slowly across the front of the stage, checking out this invisible plane like a mime artist. Then he, too, develops his own riffs, playing with the dynamics of tension and release. From tracing a tight, knotty spiral with his arms, he suddenly drops into casual crouched bounces, arms swinging easily. Or, like a spring uncoiling, he whips a laconic turn into a series of dizzying spins which topples him over to tumble across the floor.
an astonishing stage presence, as compelling to watch when motionless as during his mercurial flashes of speed.
Khan has an astonishing stage presence, as compelling to watch when motionless as during his mercurial flashes of speed. And whereas the restraining puppet strings were almost tangible in Loose in Flight, Fix shows Khan in full command of himself: at the closing moment, he mimes lifting his own knee by a wire, and then casually releases it.
Rush is a new trio, and Khan’s first group choreography. The piece is stamped with Khan’s distinctive style of quickfire motion within fluctuating cycles of tension and reverberation, and while contemporary dancers Gwyn Emberton and Moya Michael suffer by the simple fact of not being Khan himself, they get impressively close to matching him.
The work is even tauter than Fix and darker in tone, the dancers dressed in black against a bare, dimly-lit stage, Andy Cowton providing a driven, machine-like score. It’s inspired by paragliders in freefall, but there’s nothing literal to suggest that theme. Instead, there is the suspense between speed and stillness – admirably suited to Khan’s movement concerns – and there are intimations of wings and wind, or the triangular shape of a kite. A sudden flash of blue light starts off the motion, as if the dancers had fallen from a plane; later, Michael whirls her arms as rapidly and rigidly as propeller blades.
The construction is tight and formal, phrases passed between the dancers, duets and trios splintering out of phase, interlocking and reforming. Yet in the end the work is more interesting for Khan’s idiosyncratic movement invention than for its composition. Perhaps this is only to be expected from his first ensemble piece – I’m reminded, for example, of Wayne McGregor’s initial forays into groupwork, similarly built around the highly distinctive idiom of their choreographer. McGregor has since considerably developed his compositional skills while maintaining his personal style, and I look forward to Khan’s future experiments in this direction.
Like the opening musical number, Rush is based around a nine-and-a-half beat time cycle (not that I could follow it). But by opening and closing in this way, the show suggests a journey away from kathak and a return to it, now intriguingly transformed. If kathak remains a source of inspiration and renewal for Khan, this programme also indicates that he’s gaining new ground with each loop of that creative spiral.