Akram Khan, the British dancer and choreographer, recalls a panel he participated in a couple of years ago. Khan, who is now 31, was among a small group of fast-rising talents, each of whom had the opportunity to pose a single question to the master guest artist, Merce Cunningham. "I asked him: 'Do you consider the stage a temple or a science lab?'" he says.
Khan, a thoughtful, soft-spoken, impeccably polite man with a sleekly commanding stage persona, clearly wrestles with this very same question himself. His work, alternately described as an example of "cultural fusion" and an "artistic melting pot," suggests that the stage must ideally possess elements of both the spiritual and the experimental. Consider his 71-minute piece, ma, which will receive its New York premiere April 26, 28, and 29 at the Rose Theater as part of Great Performers.
Among the catalysts for ma (which translates in most Indian languages as "Mother Earth") was Khan's reading of The Algebra of Infinite Justice, a collection of controversial, politically charged essays by the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy.
"It's a phenomenal book, and there was one particular essay‹about the big dam projects that have had terribly destructive effects on Indian farmers‹that left a great impression on me," says Khan. "What I found most fascinating was the powerful effect that being evicted from their land had on these farmers, and the intensity of their spiritual relationship with the earth, which was the source of their food, their livelihood, their everything. It made me think about the choices we make‹to be deaf to the civilization around us, or to question it. And it reminded me that my closest relationship to the earth is with the supermarket."
Khan's new piece, as he describes it, "explores notions of the earth speaking." The piece was co-commissioned by Lincoln Center and the Singapore Arts Festival (where it debuted in 2004), and Khan and his troupe, the Akram Khan Company, have subsequently performed it around the world.
"You can try to ignore what is happening on the planet, but the Earth has a powerful voice, and the recent tsunami is just one expression of it," says Khan; he still vividly recalls the strange experience of performing ma in the wake of that great wave.
"In creating this piece I decided to tell two stories‹one personal, which I experienced as a child, and the other a tale my mother told me. Both stories were connected by the sense of the world being upside down, and the kind of clarity you can get from that perspective. I still remember hanging upside down from a tree as a child, and what a wonderful view that was. But I also feel, and have for some time, that the world is in chaos."
The text for ma was written by playwright-novelist-screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. An original score by Riccardo Nova is performed by a cellist, flutist, percussionist, and the vocalist Faheem Mazhar, whose rendering of Sufi songs is crucial to setting the mood. Khan also uses recorded music by the Brussels-based Ictus Ensemble.
Storytelling in dance is second nature to Khan, whose earliest training was in the traditional Indian art of kathak, with its seamless blend of music, dance, and narrative drawn from the tales of the Hindu gods. Khan began folk dancing at the age of three and started studying kathak at seven. As a teenager he traveled the world performing in Pandit Ravi Shankar's The Jungle Book, as well as Peter Brook's epic production of The Mahabharata.
"My mother had wanted to be a dancer, but she came from a very respectable family‹her father was a mathematical genius‹and he looked down on such things," explains Khan. "But it's ironic really, because Indian music and dance are based on some very complex math."
Kathak remains at the core of everything Khan does. "It gives me a sense of clarity, a way of dealing with tradition and modernity," he says. "And through it I have a way of creating a bridge between the two."
But the world of modern dance also is deeply ingrained in Khan. In a compromise with his parents, who wanted him to study a profession, he earned a degree at Britain's Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and became enamored of the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch and Britain's experimental, socially activist DV8 Physical Theatre.
"I first saw those companies on tape and they were mind-opening for me," says the dancer. "They made me start to question many things."
From the Northern School it was on to a coveted spot in X-Group at P.A.R.T.S., Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Brussels-based school, where Khan choreographed two pieces that attracted considerable attention and helped launch his career. He founded his own company in 1999, in collaboration with Farooq Chaudhry, who is now his producer. And during the past several years, the group has presented Khan's Kaash (2002), a work created with sculptor Anish Kapoor and composer Nitin Sawhney, as well as ma.
"I've been on the road with my company for about 10 months a year for several years now," says Khan. "And it's time to break that formula, because I think you can start to feel the weight of all that around your neck. I'm going to concentrate on smaller, more collaborative works for a while before returning to my company."
Last July, at Sadler's Wells in London, Khan presented the debut of Zero Degrees, in which he teamed up with the Flemish-Moroccan dancer and choreographer Sidi Larni Cherkaoui, sculptor Antony Gormley, and composer Sawhney. An exploration of what he described as "dual identities and the tension and meeting point between opposites‹birth and death, light and dark, chaos and order," the piece also was inspired by a true story involving an unnerving experience that Khan had while crossing the Indian-Bangladeshi border.
He is about to begin work on a full-length piece, Two of You, with superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem, which is set to debut at Sadler's Wells in September 2006; again, it is the notion of opposites that will be his starting point. As he explains it, "It's about the need for two things to create one‹of which I myself am a perfect example. And it is about the way two systems that are often at war‹like science and religion‹are often in search of the same thing, and we call that thing either truth or God."
After pairing with Guillem, Khan will enter into yet another high-profile performance collaboration with actor Juliette Binoche.
"One of the things I saw that Peter Brook was most brilliant at doing was paring away everything he thought was unnecessary," says Khan. "From complexity he found simplicity, and simplicity is usually the most honest. Brook is a complete genius in that sense, and more and more I am trying to go in that direction."
Hedy Weiss is Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.