When I meet dancer/choreographer Akram Khan at the stage door café of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, he looks a little… A little what, exactly? It’s hard to tell: he looks the same, but different. Maybe a touch thinner? Maybe a bit worn – though the bright eyes and eager attitude suggest otherwise. Or perhaps he’s just very pushed for time; but then, he usually is.
All of those things, as it happens, are true. ‘Looking very trim,’ comments a passing colleague, and I think: Ha! It wasn’t just my imagination. And yes, Khan’s time is as squeezed as ever. It’s early evening already and he hasn’t yet managed lunch, so he chomps on a plateful of food through our meeting, which has itself been slotted into a narrow window in his schedule. Currently he is creating two new pieces – Dust, for English National Ballet (which premiered in April), and Torobaka, with flamenco outlier Israel Galván – as working with the National Youth Dance Company, and preparing to continue the international tour of Desh, his riveting solo performance from 2011.
Dancers tend to realise sooner than most performers that life on stage is but a stage of life
But the actual reason he looks different turns out to be something else: last year, Khan became a dad. The arrival of his daughter Sayuri changed everything. The way he looks, the way he thinks. The way, in fact, that this interview goes. I had planned to ask how he saw the next phase of his career, now that he is approaching 40. Because dancers, after all, tend to realise sooner than most performers that life on stage is but a stage of life. And now it turns out that life – a new life, in this case – has moved him on already. Instead of planning for change, we talk about dealing with it.
Practical matters – how to get things done – have come very much to the fore. ‘A child changes your life,’ says Khan, simply. ‘It tells you what it needs – and that’s it. You can’t force it into your schedule. Once Sayuri was born, the inevitable happened: I prioritised time. Without even consciously deciding, time with her went to the top of the list. That means I don’t tour heavily any more. When I do tour, I try not to go away for more than three weeks. If I have to, I try to arrange it so that Sayuri and my wife Yuko can go to Japan to spend time with family there.’ Khan has always been close to his family, but now he appreciates that at the most literal level: his parents live just round the corner from him in south London, his sister within walking distance, and their proximity is clearly a huge help now that he has a family of his own.
And what of work? ‘I don’t think I’m doing less work now,’ he says, ‘but I am condensing everything into very intense periods, because time is precious. Before, I used to discover things by being in the studio. Now I do much more preparation beforehand. It means studio time is more focused, more thought out. It’s actually not my favourite way of working, but it does give a sense of sharpness and clarity.’
Watch a baby discover things and you rediscover so much with them. That’s something very special.
If fatherhood has forced Khan to make virtues of necessities, it has also been an unexpected stimulus to his creativity. ‘Yes, Sayuri takes a lot of energy,’ he admits, ‘but actually I think she gives me much more back. Watching a child grow is so inspiring. You go back to basics, seeing how little gestures or communications can inspire her. They are small things, but they’re not trivial. As adults, we take a lot of things for granted. Watch a baby discover things and you rediscover so much with them. That’s something very special.’
That sense of rediscovery – even rejuvenation – has directly influenced the piece Khan is developing with Israel Galván, a father of two (aged 9 and 13). ‘We did talk about children, and we met each other’s kids,’ says Khan. ‘With Torobaka we’ve both been inspired by simple things. Desh was a complex, layered piece, but with Torobaka, we wanted to go in the opposite direction. We went back to the idea of sound before it is recognisable as a kind of music, and to the basic movements and gestures that children pick up.’ Each is highly trained – Khan in kathak and contemporary, Galván in flamenco – and this search for simplicity became about connecting to each other through an idea of infancy. ‘Flamenco and kathak both started on a basic human level, and we were trying to go back to their origins. To imagine the childhood of the form, when it was still discovering itself.’
To be interested in infancy is also to be conscious of age – of growth, and decay. And as a dancer, Khan has become much more aware of the tolls that time takes on his body. Back in 2010, a shoulder injury delayed the premiere of his duet Gnosis. ‘A dancer talks with his body,’ he said at the time, adding: ‘this time my body talked back.’ In 2012, a ruptured Achilles tendon had him laid up for months. Isn’t it time to take start taking it easy?
Actually, Khan seems to be doing the opposite: training diligently, precisely in order to prevent injury. ‘I prepare more intensely than ever now. I would say I do two hours more before going into the rehearsal studio than I did in my twenties or early thirties. Everything is about prevention.’ It’s not just preparation but time off that needs more care. ‘When you’re younger, you can take time off and bounce back in a few days. Now that recovery period is much longer. So I can’t take breaks from training like I used to. Actually, you stop enjoying the preparation, you just love the creation and performance.’ Nevertheless, he remains a very physical dancer, not ready to move to the next stage yet. ‘I guess I naturally tend to go for high dynamics,’ he says. ‘Going slower is something that I am –’ he pauses, then laughs – ‘embracing slowly.’
It strikes me that Khan and Galván have another connection: in kathak and flamenco, performers frequently continue to a far greater age than in ballet or contemporary dance. ‘It’s true,’ says Khan. ‘The techniques have different demands. In any case, you also recognise that more than physical clarity, age brings an emotional clarity to the body. So you’re playing with emotions, because the physicality is so ingrained you don’t have to show it as much.’
For a performer, that flex between physical and emotional presence is fascinating. Khan goes so far as to say that ‘the years from 35 to 45 might be the golden age. You’re taking all that training that you’ve done and you’re exploring it, looking into its layers.’
It’s an issue that I put later to Israel Galván, whom I contact by telephone during his own overloaded schedule (he’s just leaving New Zealand, en route to New York). ‘To dance flamenco as a great professional,’ he states, ‘you cannot be young. With a young dancer you can see virtuosic or energetic flamenco. But real flamenco is expressed when you have experience. You develop other kind of energy in order to dance. A duality between age and strength, right? That is why I believe the perfect age for a dancer – if you keep fit – is 50 to 55.’ (Galván is 41 this year.)
In fact, Galván talks admiringly of famed Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, who died at 102 and danced till he was 100. ‘He left a question in the air,’ he says. ‘What is more important in dancing: the athlete or the spirit?’ The suggestion is that something in the dancer might transcend dance itself. ‘The truth is that art is a way of living. It’s not just about dance performances, or even dance. For example, when I am in my house just relaxing, my daughter tells me: ‘Daddy, don’t dance!’ Because she realises I am dancing with my mind. Art is something intrinsic. Even though you are not creating or performing, your head is always dancing, you know what I mean?’