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He can find rhythm in contrasts of his life

Akram Khan moves to a world beat as he blends modern and traditional, East and West in his choreography.

September 24, 2003|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

His boyish voice rolls out in gently British tones, only to be contradicted by his physical image: Akram Khan is a muscular dancer with a bald pate, goatee and mustache. Onstage, he exudes fierce determination, a lightning-like command of his moves and a regal authority that calls to mind the late great modernist Jose Limon.

As both performer and choreographer, Khan, 29, is currently among the hottest properties in international dance. Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, he's also part of the mushrooming young Anglo-Asian population portrayed in such movies as "East Is East" and "Bend It Like Beckham." And he's thriving on the contrasts inherent in that world -- mingling contemporary Western styles, for instance, with kathak, a 16th century North Indian dance form he has studied for much of his life.

"None of this cross-breeding was deliberate or conscious," Khan said recently on the phone from Stockholm, a city where his current tour took him in advance of the Los Angeles debut tonight and Thursday of his Akram Khan Company at Skirball Cultural Center. "Connecting kathak with modern dance wasn't a brain thing, not a decision to do this or do that. Rather, it's just something that happens when the body takes in different information and makes a real and organic fusion of it."

Whatever Khan's idea of how his virtuosic dancing led to his innovative choreography, critics have been rapturous: "exquisitely timed expressivity ... sacred and sensual, mortal yet divine" (the Times of London); "he makes you shiver with pleasure" (Daily Telegraph); "his precision at high speed and gravitas in stillness could elevate a classroom exercise to thrilling" (the Guardian).

And it all started with Michael Jackson. Khan remembers as a child seeing the self-styled "king of pop" and wanting to move like him.

"It was his magic as a performer, not as a dancer, that impressed me so. His ability to hold an audience, to be magnetic like that. There are dancers and there are performers. For me, like kathak, it's really about interaction with audiences. You have to be the narrator and take them on a journey."

Since those days, Khan has moved on to other influences. The London scene, for starters, which boasts a hotbed of pacesetters in contemporary dance theater -- among others, DV8 Physical Theatre, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures company and the Ballet Boyz. Khan has collaborated with many of these artists and has also appeared with sitarist Ravi Shankar. As a teenager, he even performed in director Peter Brook's stage adaptation of "The Mahabharata" (and made his first visit to L.A. when the production was part of the 1987 Los Angeles Festival).

To date, Khan's choreographic work has been about pure movement. "People call it abstract," he says. "But I don't believe in the word. If movement comes from the human body, by definition it's not abstract. It has emotion. It tells a story."

The program at Skirball will feature two of his solos. One, "Loose in Flight," is a metaphor for breaking through the strict bonds of kathak, a kind of simultaneous rebellion and homage. "It's very playful," he says. "I used to get so sick of [kathak's] geometric precision that I cheated. When the teacher wasn't looking, I'd drop my elbow, then quickly lift it again before she faced me."

The Skirball bill will also include a group piece, "Related Rocks," which Khan hopes will be received "as a quintet, rather than a quartet with soloist." He says he prefers to blend in with the others, not stand out as a singular presence.

Lately, Khan says, he's been edging toward narrative. In a new piece called "Ma" (besides "mother," it means "earth" in both Hindi and Finnish, he says), the dancers will sing and speak. And, yes, "it was Pina Bausch who inspired me on this course," he adds. "For me, she's a goddess."

Like Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal, Khan's company is multinational. His other dancers are South African, Chinese and Spanish -- but they were chosen for their individual qualities, he says, not their ethnic profiles.

Still, he believes in a melting-pot aesthetic: "Allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to come together is the way of the world. Something new and contemporary will always result from such an experiment."

Experimentation was hardly in the minds of his parents when they encouraged him to study kathak. "All they wanted was to keep me culturally close to their traditions." Like so many of the South Asian immigrants to Britain depicted in movies today, the Khans had concerns about how their children would fare.

Later, he says, "My parents were very nervous after realizing that dance was not just a hobby but a career choice. Could I make my way in so precarious a field as the performing arts?

"Others in our community would have liked to see me become a lawyer," he says, laughing.

So far, Khan is having it both ways. He's successful and self-determined.

*

Akram Khan Company

Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: Tonight and Thursday, 8 p.m.

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 655-8587

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