Akram Khan is not afraid of big themes – perhaps because kathak, the south-Asian dance style in which he trained initially, seems to have almost a whole cosmology embedded in its rhythms, gestures and dynamics. Astrophysics and creation myths lay behind last year’s Kaash. His new work Ma deals with earth and sky, growth and fertility, and, although less successful, is choreographically more interesting.
Several sections are in the style that Khan has already made his own: sinewy phrases that take the rhythmic precision, fluid arms and sudden freezes of kathak, and cast them into a profusion of torques, twists and rolls. It’s gripping to watch, and the seven dancers who join Khan are sleek exponents. Yet it becomes tiring in overextended sequences where the dancers simply replicate each other’s moves.
Khan is also eager to break new ground – indeed, this could be his underlying theme
But Khan is also eager to break new ground – indeed, this could be his underlying theme. “Ma” means both earth and mother in Hindi, and two spoken stories (with text by Hanif Kureishi) bring Khan’s intentions into focus. In one, he describes hanging from a tree to let ideas fall out of his head and take root in the ground – an idea mirrored in the many upside-down poses in the piece. In the other, two women – upended, one leg reaching skywards – recount the fable of a woman whose children are the trees that she planted as seeds. The story again finds choreographic echoes: in the dancers’ splay-legged spasms, as if in the throes of childbirth; in a soft, earthy mass of bodies that sends up limbs like tendrils.
The welter of episodes makes for some rough stylistic lurches, as does the mix of music, which ranges from tabla drumming to cello scrapes and Sufi chants. Ma feels like a transitional work, a seedbed of ideas that, with judicious pruning, may yield its most promising fruit in the future.