A mesmerising performer … Akram Khan in Zero Degrees with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (2005)
Bengali boy from south London learns Indian dance, tours with a British theatre director based in France, studies in Brussels, then goes global. Now the world’s his oyster.
Born in south London, 1974, to Bangladeshi parents, Akram Khan began dance at the tender age of three. He was taught Bengali folk dance by his mother and at seven, began studying kathak (a classical dance style from north India) with teacher Pratap Pawar. The initial push to train came from his mother; at the time, Khan preferred watching Knight Rider on TV, or perfecting his Michael Jackson routines.
It was while performing with the Academy of Indian Dance in 1984, that Khan was spotted by the legendary director Peter Brook. Still only in his teens, he later went on to tour internationally in Brook’s epic production Mahabharata. At a loss for what to do after A-levels and under pressure to get a degree, Khan opted for a contemporary dance course at Leicester’s De Montfort University. He transferred to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance to train more rigorously as a dancer – and graduated with the highest marks ever awarded by the school.
Khan’s first solos quickly attracted attention – not only was he bold and inventive in his experimentations with kathak, but he was a mesmerising performer. After appearances at the Dance Umbrella festival and a spell performing with acclaimed choreographer Jonathan Burrows, he joined the X-Group project, a creative programme for young choreographers at Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s PARTS school in Brussels.
Building on work he created there, Khan returned to London later the same year and founded his own dance company. A meteoric rise followed. Just two years later in 2002, Khan made his first full-length work. He also began touring internationally, was the subject of ITV’s South Bank Show, expanded his company and picked up a string of awards both in the UK and beyond.
Alternating with his company work, Khan continues to present solo recitals of classical kathak dance. In addition to this, he has made pieces for the Ballet Boyz, Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and er, Kylie Minogue (he choreographed a section of her 2006 Showgirl tour). His schedule seems endlessly packed; when he sat to have his portrait done last year for the National Portrait Gallery, artist Darvish Fakhr said that Khan would “fall asleep immediately, because he never has any down time”.
Watching Akram Khan
Khan’s dance roots are in kathak – and it shows. It’s a style characterised by mathematically complex rhythmic footwork, spins, fluid arm and hand gestures, as well as dynamic contrasts between speed and stillness.
That background permeates his contemporary work. Sometimes he uses moves directly from kathak, even where he doesn’t, his style has a lot of rhythmic interest – the arms circle and slice around the head and torso, and bursts of action and sudden freezes. Khan has also often used speech and storytelling in his pieces.
Khan is a compelling performer with a soloist’s command of the stage. As with other distinctive soloists (such as Wayne McGregor) his earliest group compositions tended to look like refractions of his own presence. Later, he made a trilogy of duets in which he was counterbalanced by a very different presence: Belgian dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in the masterful Zero Degrees (2005); French ballerina Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters (2006) and French film actor Juliette Binoche in in-I (2008). Khan did not dance in his most recent piece Bahok (a collaboration with the National Ballet of China, 2008), and the choreography is consequently more tailored to the diverse talents of his international dancers.
He attracts high-profile collaborators, most frequently Nitin Sawhney as composer, but also artists Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, and writer Hanif Kureishi.
Pratap Pawar is Khan’s “guruji”, his kathak teacher.
Far more than producer, Farooq Chaudhry is effectively Khan’s company partner.
Nitin Sawhney is often Khan’s musical collaborator.
South African dancer Shanell Winlock, a long-standing company member, is also Khan’s wife.
When Khan first went into the studio to begin work on in-I with Juliette Binoche, she simply repeated everything he said and did – continuously, for two hours. How’s that for an icebreaker?
In his own words
“My real break was winning a junior school disco competition dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It was the first time I got respect from my classmates. Before that, I was this shy, insecure, geeky, skinny, boring little Asian boy.” – Interview with Deany Judd, Guardian 2009
“I use my kathak without realising. I see things with a kathak eye.” –
Interview with Tamsin Blanchard, Telegraph 2008
“It looks as if I’m diversifying, but I think I started scattered, and now, in a funny way, I’m moving towards my beginning, becoming what I want to be.” – Interview with Clifford Bishop, Sunday Times 2006
In other words
“Until he was 20, he says, kathak, together with music videos (he adored Michael Jackson), was all he knew…. Then he went to college, where he studied Martha Graham’s technique and Merce Cunningham’s, and he came out jumbled.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker 2006
“Akram Khan is that rare breed of artist, equally at home in classical or avant-garde … The cutting edge gains traceable roots; traditional gets a dose of glamour.” – Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday 2003
“Khan is a big, graceful dancer who is capable of both arresting stillness and galvanic speed, and whether he’s dancing classical or modern he holds the stage as if it were his personal domain.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2001
“Bangali chheley besh bhalo korecchey.”
Which means: the Bengali boy done good. In Bengali.
Aren’t there any Bollywood bits?
Jonathan Burrows was a formative influence on Khan.
Shobana Jeyasingh is another choreographer who has experimented – though in a very different way – with classical Indian dance.
Now watch this
Where to see him next
See the Akram Khan Company website for performance dates.