After establishing himself as a major force on the British dance scene in his mid-twenties, his work was first seen in New York in 2001‹most recently in collaboration with Steve Reich marking the seminal composer's 70th birthday in 2006.
His own strong presence as a performer‹a fluent, inventive blending of Kathak, the South Indian dance style that was his earliest training, with the contemporary modern dance he studied later‹has been a major part of each of the works seen this side of the Atlantic. But next month, New York City Center will present his newest work, bahok, the first major group work he has created in several years, and his first piece choreography in which he will not perform‹a distinction that, he admits, "feels really strange and bizarre."
Khan will still be dancing in zero degrees, his 2005 collaboration with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui that runs on alternate evenings. This work launched a trilogy of duets‹including sacred monsters, a collaboration with celebrated French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, which continues to tour the globe.
zero degrees grew out of Khan's friendship with Cherkaoui, a Belgian dancer and choreographer prolific on the European dance scene. "We followed each other's work until the right time came along and we felt we could work together on a duet," Khan said, speaking from Beijing where he was in rehearsal for the January 25 premiere of bahok. The two had met in 2000, and discovered shared interests (and diverse backgrounds). "Cherkaoui starts from a theater point, while I start from a movement point," Khan explains. "He moves towards movement, and I move towards theater. Somehow we've always been attracted to each other's opposites, but when we came together, we found a lot of similarities. He's a fan of Bruce Lee, and I'm a fan of Muhammad Ali. We started to investigate: film, books, sports people, and then movements and their philosophy... We move very differently and we wanted to also share that onstage‹that we are separate, very different. He is extremely flexible; he studied yoga since he was young. And there is the difference between our centers: mine is very low, and his is very high."
In zero degrees, the quietly intense, casually dressed duo inhabits an enclosed space with no apparent exits for 75 minutes, with musicians performing Nitin Sawhney's score behind an upstage scrim. Yet they are not entirely alone, since two mannequins, blank-faced yet clearly representing the performers, become increasingly involved in the action. Their somewhat disturbing presence contributes to what Khan cites as a major concept behind the work: "the idea of one becoming two, and how two become one. Both of us have dual identities‹he's half Flemish and half Moroccan, and I'm brought up in London, but my parents are Bangladeshi. Whenever I'm in London, I feel more Bangladeshi somehow, not quite fitting in, and when I'm in Bangladesh, they make me feel very British. It's the idea of being between two borders."
A collaboration between Khan and the National Ballet of China, varied backgrounds figure strongly in bahok as well. Three of that troupe's dancers are in the cast, along with some Khan veterans and several dancers new to him. Each brings a distinct background and movement expertise which served as Khan's inspiration for the work. "The group is very eclectic. The dancers from the NBC have very strong classical technique, and a lot of the material in the piece came from them. One of them also studied Chinese folk dance. One of the dancers is South African, and knows both African and contemporary dance; one is strong in South Indian dance, another comes more from physical theater. It's very much based on these eight individual characters who are trying to find a way to communicate‹searching for a universal harmony or language. 'Bahok' in Bengali means 'carriers'. It's about these eight traveling individuals. Our month-long research was about what 'home' means to different people when they are traveling. It's what we carry with us‹our memories and our five senses." The new work also features an original score by Sawhney, his fourth collaboration with Khan.
Khan's current calendar is a breathless one. This month, while he and Guillem perform sacred monsters in various Australian cities, bahok will have its UK premiere. Next month, it tours to France and Germany. In September, at London's National Theater, he will unveil the final in his trilogy of duets, with a most unexpected and potentially fascinating partner: Juliette Binoche, the versatile‹and frequently Oscar-nominated‹French actress. Will she be dancing or acting? "Both," Khan replies. "It's a true collaboration. Juliette came and saw zero degrees, and we felt like we wanted to do something together."
It has been a fertile and richly creative decade so far for this unique dancer-choreographer, but even as he looks forward, he is pleased to have the chance to revisit zero degrees. "We have performed it more than 100 times in two years and had a chance to develop it. At the premiere we felt, this is it, the structure is there‹now we just have to grow within it. It has evolved internally. It is much more layered and sophisticated than when first presented."
Susan Reiter writes frequently about the arts.