Akram Khan first made his name as an outstanding kathak dancer and a distinctive contemporary soloist. His first choreographed solos were striking, and his subsequent group works were both audaciously conceived and strikingly realised, if lacking in compositional flair.
Last year he took a different direction. Instead of group or solo choreography, he teamed up with with Flemish dancer/choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The result, Zero Degrees, was exceptional, not only for the talented collaborators, but more tellingly because Cherkaoui, a consummate dancer and choreographer himself, brought a highly contrasting physical and emotional presence to the stage. It was as if Khan had found a worthy match; and certainly the shifts of balance and power between them perfectly embodied the theme of doubling that wove through the piece.
Khan’s new piece Sacred Monsters continues what Zero Degrees began. Several collaborators have returned – dramaturg Guy Cools, lighting designer Mikki Kunttu, and singer Faheem Mazhar among them – and even Shizuka Hariu’s glacial sets hint at the earlier piece. And again, the choreography is built from the connections and disjunctions between two charismatic performers.
Here, Khan’s worthy match is Sylvie Guillem who, at 41, remains the most stellar ballerina of her generation. The theme they’ve found that both unites and divides them is, quite simply, a classical training. The piece opens with willowy Guillem standing with a skipping rope in the mid-distance, like a crestfallen child – a frozen, almost photographic image that foreshadows the themes of childhood and memory that are yet to come. Four musicians sit on one side, while singer Juliette Van Petenghem comes onto the stage to provide (as often through the piece) an eerie vocal counterpart to Guillem.
But it is Khan who dances first, in a sparkling kathak solo (by Gauri Sharma Tripathi) that effortlessly displays his combination of fleetness with strength. Guillem’s following solo (by Lin Hwai Min, from Taiwanese Cloudgate Dance Theatre) is indistinct though: sinuous coiling and unfurling, spiked with her famously high leg extensions, and bogged down by the mulchily mystical chanting. Guillem, with her tensile, hyperflexible physique, can scarcely fail to look striking. But unlike Khan’s solo, Guillem’s doesn’t establish a distinct presence for her.
From here that the piece begins to get into its stride, counterposing the fixities of classicism with the human search for self and the inevitability of doubt. Khan, recounting his worry of not being able to portray Krishna as he goes bald, keeps pulling his arms into position as they slip out of line. Guillem, meanwhile, casually knots up her limbs as her mind meanders elsewhere – to Charlie Brown books, to learning Italian.
It’s the choreography that gives backbone to these amusing but unremarkable monologues
It’s the choreography that gives backbone to these amusing but unremarkable monologues. Khan and Guillem link hands for a hypnotic duet, their arms spooling like a loop of ribbon. Then they mime playground rivalries in a cartoonish sequence of puppet-like freeze-frames.
The piece takes a darker turn as Khan drops to the floor, one troubled hand obsessively thrusting outwards and returning to tap tremulously against his chest. He’s asking questions: is this right? is this allowed? Guillem hugs him, tenderly, awkwardly, as if to say yes, she knows what it’s like, but can offer neither answers nor solace. The following duet, Guillem wrapped around Khan’s waist as their arms float like rippling reflections, eloquently evokes both their connection and their alienation.
The piece could have ended at that moment, with its intimations of individual spirits struggling for identity within a system, for a voice within a language – for the monster within the sacred. Instead, there is a skippy coda which aims to show the flipside to struggle: the wonder, the achievement. But it undercuts the previous emotional trajectory, and feels like a tacked-on upbeat ending.
Sacred Monsters is a sequel to Zero Degrees, and like many sequels it’s not quite as the good the original. But it has moments of real transport, and there’s enough promise in its premise and its production to make the third part of this planned trilogy – where the worthy match will be Juliette Binoche – an enticing, exciting prospect.