Akram Khan: Fusion on a Grand Scale

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On November 13, London-based choreographer Akram Khan presented Kaash to a sold-out house at UW’s Meany Hall. Originally created in collaboration with his dancers in 2002, Khan revised this full-length work with a new cast last year. Kaash, which translates to “if only,” used “Hindu Gods, black holes, Indian time cycles, tablas, creation and destruction” as inspiration for this fusion of contemporary dance with classical Indian Kathak dance. The 55-minute work clearly referenced Gods, heroes, epic struggles, and the passage of time in this grand-scale multimedia production.

Akram Khan Company in Kaash Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company in Kaash
Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

The three female performers wore sleeveless black dresses and leggings, while the two men were shirtless, wearing long black skirts. These costumes, all designed by Kimie Nakano, offered a modern take on traditional Indian pishwaz and emphasized the dancers’ arm articulations—their limbs flowed in billows of dark fabric through the many twisting and turning sequences. One particularly arresting moment manifested in a virtuosic pattern of connected turns that progressed in a linked circle around the stage. The dancers’ fastidious spotting enabled this impressive show of control and accuracy. Another frequent motif involved the two male dancers pausing upstage at length, before performing solo phrase work that explored their shoulders’ range of motion and highlighted their rippling back muscles. Nakano’s costumes, while simple, effectively complemented both Khan’s choreography and the intertwining connections between the performers, lighting, and set design.

 
Well-known sculptor Anish Kapoor designed the massive set. The giant rectangular backdrop sometimes glowed with primary colors and sometimes seemed menacing as it sucked the light from the rest of the stage into its black center. A large square of grey Marley covered the stage; the edges of the space were clearly delineated by the contrasting black floor, an inversion of the backdrop’s color scheme. The lighting (designed by Aideen Malone) utilized the Marley as a canvas, washing it in vibrant red and blue lights to create an epic, otherworldly effect. To open the piece, one dancer entered the stage while the house lights were still up. He stood facing away from the audience for several minutes, generating awkward giggles and coughs from viewers unsure whether the performance had yet begun. Suddenly, the entire house and stage fell into blackness, startling the audience and foreshadowing some disturbing moments to appear later in the work.

Akram Khan in Kaash Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan in Kaash
Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

Kaash’s music was composed by Nitin Sawhney and featured Khan himself reciting rhythmic Hindi poetry, set to a driving drum score. The momentum built by this energetic soundtrack was momentarily lost as several solos took place in silence, but regained force as the dancers’ footfalls, panting breaths, and the dull thuds of their bodies unhesitatingly hitting the floor became audible over time. In a particularly arresting moment, the musical drone became overwhelmingly loud and painful, like the advertisement for Surround Sound at the beginning of some movies. Many audience members plugged their ears as the noise vibrated their internal organs and all light seemed to be drawn away by the giant artwork onstage. This unsettling effect sharply contrasted the thrilling, evocative sections of no-holds-barred, pedal-to-the-metal dance.

 
The five riveting performers embodied contrasting movement qualities that kept the audience engaged with differing dynamics throughout the evening-length piece. Violent, precise arm jabs and rapid changes of direction were juxtaposed with unexpected moments of powerful stillness. Fingers plucked and pierced the air in meticulous hand gestures reminiscent of Kathak’s distinctive mudras. The performers forcefully penetrated the space with martial art-like arm phrases in canon and counterpoint. In contrast, the dancers’ legs supported their whirling upper bodies with strong lunging poses that evoked yogic warrior stances.

Akram Khan Company in Kaash Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company in Kaash
Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

While Khan’s movement vocabulary contained unusual gestures and shapes from its Kathak influence, Kaash’s overall structure relied heavily on traditional modern forms. Khan designed intricate patterns of canons, point and counterpoint, and repetition of themes in the opening and closing scenes, which clearly showcased his uncommon movement vocabulary. With a wide range of dynamics, encompassing stillness, rapid and multilayered movement, coupled with a beautiful and frightening visual backdrop, the viewer left the hour-long show nearly as exhausted as its intrepid performers. Akram Khan’s visit to UW’s World Series was indeed a rare and valuable treat for Seattle audiences.

 
To learn more about Akram Khan Company, visit HERE.