News Column

Storyteller faces up to his Achilles heel

August 10, 2014

Chitra Ramaswamy

AKRAM Khan, one of Britain's leading dancers and choreographers, is reminiscing about his years in Peter Brook's legendary Mahabharata. The great director spotted him at a dance school performance, and plucked the teenage boy from the leafy suburbs of south-west London, where he had been honing the classical Indian art of kathak since the age of seven. And so, as these sorts of fairytales go, he found himself touring the world with the giants of British theatre, in one of the most important stage productions of the past few decades. It was a major cultural moment, but for Khan? Not so much."It wasn't huge," he says with a shrug. Khan's voice, by the way, is just like his dance: soft, then sinewy, languid one moment, staccato the next, a kind of restless tango between East and West. "I was 14 and all I cared about was girls, remote control cars and wearing Converse trainers in two different colours. It was the wrong period for me to take anything seriously, but I absorbed a lot unconsciously. I was like a leaf in the forest and all the animals were speaking." He ripples his hand elegantly in what can only be described as a leaf gesture. All of a sudden, Khan, the prodigious kathak dancer, the man watched by billions around the world during the London Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony, is sitting opposite me in the caf of Sadler's Wells, making his body tell a story with a single exquisite movement. "All I could do was absorb," he concludes with a smile.Gnosis, the piece that Khan and the company he founded in 2000 are bringing to the Edinburgh International Festival, is inspired once again by the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic poem that he describes to me as "the Indian version of Superman". In a specially commissioned revival, he and the acclaimed Taiwanese dancer, Fang- Yi Sheu, will explore the story of Gandhari, the queen who blindfolds herself in order to share the experience of the blind king. "I was interested in the female element," he says. "I always struggle with the way the male characters are celebrated in myth."We continue to talk about his time in Brook's company. "In rehearsal Peter would sit right at the back of the theatre. He would beckon and I would have to run up all the stairs to him. No one else had to do this. I remember running up for the 100th time and thinking 'I hate this old man!'" He laughs. "Now I realise he was releasing my energy. I mean, I was a nightmare. The only time I could focus was on stage. It would probably be called ADHD now but those words weren't there when I was growing up. Instead my mother channelled it all into dance."We were supposed to meet in the morning at London'sSadler's Wells, where Khan is rehearsing a new duet with a flamenco dancer which involves a trip to Madrid in two days. The day before our interview, he returned from Hong Kong, where he was touring Desh, a powerhouse solo exploring his father's Bangladeshi heritage. It all takes its toll and Khan is late, looking tired but groomed. He is compact, shaven-headed, with salt and pepper stubble. "I slept in," he says sheepishly, ordering a strong coffee. "I haven't slept for two weeks. Well no, I slept about two hours a night. It eventually accumulates and you're like, I'm going to collapse."How does he work like that? "It's risky. A little bit dangerous. Well, very dangerous," he admits. "You become fragile physically and emotionally." Khan is 40 now and considering his future as a dancer, which for someone who lives and works in a constant dialogue between East and West is complicated. In terms of contemporary dance, he is getting on. In terms of kathak, a rigorous north Indian art form characterised by rapid and rhythmic footwork, spins, and stylised arm and hand gestures, he is nearing his peak. I ask him about this and his response comes as a surprise. "I feel a deadline getting closer," he confesses. "A personal deadline of when I want to stop. Your mind still imagines it can dance a certain way, but the body can only do it up to a certain point. You have to be realistic." So he's retiring? "I have a few more projects and then..."Khan will continue to choreograph and perform but he says his solos, the ones, such as Desh, that have become his signature works, will no longer be possible. "It's too hard, too risky. After a few more years I won't be doing them. Kathak, I can do. It's designed for older bodies." So he could continue to dance solo kathak? "Yes, but I won't," he says. "I will do it privately for my daughter. The older I get, the more I have to invest time if I want to keep dancing on this level. Half of my training is about injury prevention now. So you have to choose."In 2012, Khan, who has collaborated with artists ranging from Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley to Kylie Minogue and Juliette Binoche, had to face these choices for the first time. After he was invited to participate in Danny Boyle's opening ceremony, he ruptured his Achilles tendon rehearsing in Paris with Sylvie Guillem (their duet, Sacred Monsters, is one of his most hypnotic works). He was out of action for six months, right up to the ceremony. "It's fine now," he says. "Injuries can break or remake you, and somehow this has remade me. I'm stronger than I've ever been. Now the intensity is different. A minute on stage isn't the same as it was when I was 20 or 30. Every second of that minute is more alive. You look at things differently as you get older, and the same is true of dancing."All this talk of ageing leads us to Khan's parents, who emigrated to London after Bangladesh gained independence. His father ran a restaurant in Wimbledon. Khan, his Japanese wife and their young daughter still live in the area, just around the corner from his parents. His mother was and continues to be a major influence. A lover of art, poetry and music, she wanted to be a dancer herself. "Her father was a two times gold medallist of India in mathematics," Khan explains. "He was a genius and that put a lot of pressure on the family. He didn't want his daughter to go to dance class and so she would take the food out of her tiffin box and stuff it with her bells and costume, and when her father thought she was going to the library she was at dance class."Was there a pressure on him to live out her dream for her? "It was more about the general fear my parents' generation had about their identity being lost," he counters. "Bangladesh went through a horrific time in the 1970s when it became independent. Those who came out of it had lost brothers and sisters. They didn't want to lose their language and culture. They wanted to keep it alive through their children." Which turned out to be both a blessing and a burden."Art comes out of that tension," says Khan, and despite the demands of the day ahead, he is energised, leaning forward and lifting his palms to the ceiling. "It makes you want to tell stories. If everything is in equilibrium there is nothing to tell. The fact that it's being torn apart makes you want to express it."Twitter: @ChitgrrlGnosis, King's Theatre, 19-21 August, you might like...I AMChoreographer Lemi Ponifasio explores the legacy of First World War.Playhouse, Saturday and 17 August, 8pm

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Source: Scotland on Sunday

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