I came across Akram Khan’s name by pure chance while watching him in a video interview a few years ago. In a soft, meek voice, the British dancer and choreographer was uttering his confusion of always feeling like a stranger in his home country (Great Britain); the struggle of growing up between two radically different worlds and his Bangladeshi roots which led him to naturally embrace the Indian classical tradition of Kathak dance; the anger of discovering contemporary dance only when he was 22, and how he has been quietening and bringing order to all that chaos from the moment he decided to embody and dance these contradictions and influences on stage.

In 2019, while attending the Avignon Festival, I discovered the creative power of Akram Khan’s work for the first time. His choreography for Outwitting the Devil revealed some memorable characteristics of what (I later realised) defines his signature style: the intensity of movement prompted by the individuality and interiority of each dancer, gorgeously intertwined with dramatic narrative and mythic themes. In the July dusk, the majestic Cour d’honneur du Palais des papes became the centre of deployment for a hypnotic experience, with an ensemble of six international dancers immersing the audience into a mystical land of ritual and remembering. Depicting a fragment from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, they carried us to a place where sacred, old, and new monsters meet – monsters which are born in the ancient anthropogenic pressure on nature.

After that Avignon encounter, I started to follow and watch everything I could find online (and the pandemic opened a truly generous offer of pre-recorded shows): solos such as Desh, Gnosis, Xenos; collaborations and duets with renowned dancers like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Zero degrees) or Sylvie Guillem (Sacred Monster). It was then when I found Akram Khan’s unique language of dance, which can’t be translated into a simple fusion between Indian classic dance and contemporary dance elements, but rather the coexistence of these two within his creations – the result of a very personal path and searches. Most important, I finally had the chance to meet Akram Khan the dancer, with his quick and liquid movements, with his talent at controlling the strings of ghungroos tied to his ankles (a key component of Kathak), but also with his sense of humour and talent as storyteller, always in dialogue with the audience. 

Last year, when the stages in the entire world have suddenly gone dark and quiet as the pandemic started to rampage across the planet, I met Akram Khan on Zoom, in that virtual space where we have all moved hoping to stay connected. I was overly emotional, he was slightly rushed, but he spoke as usual with an almost mathematical precision about things which stay relevant, guiding him through this uncertain and ever-changing world.

Akram Khan/ photo: Julien Benhamou

You found a very beautiful way to express the most terrifying aspect of this pandemic: the absence of movement – ‘the forced stillness’. Voices are saying that now we’re entering a new way of experiencing what it means to be alive. How do you see this change? How is it impacting you?

Akram Khan: I think it’s a challenging question to answer, because the change has not settled yet. It’s also dangerous in some form to predict what the future is going to hold because the change is so big that is affecting every single area of our lives (food, water, climate change, social issues, particular genres/art forms that we work in etc.). All I feel it’s that the change is very seismic, it’s huge. At the moment, I am just reflecting and just absorbing. I am just trying to keep close in my mind of the bare essentials of what it means to be human. That is my family, my movement, a space to be creative – we have to be creative differently. What I am seeing is that people are finding new ways to be creative, new outlets. However, a festival is not equivalent to online programs for me. They are not something to replace the ritual of live interactions, they are placeholders. That ritual of coming together is sacred for me: from there it comes a sense of what it means to be human. 

There’s a clear social and political message in your work. The messages you’re conveying are political. How do you manage to do that through dance which is rather sensorial (compared to theatre or other art forms)?

A.K.: I think it’s the suspension of beliefs, it’s about magic, really. My work is not overtly political, it is political in its essence. The themes that I choose are very politically driven, but the artist’s role is to digest that and reflect it back into the audience, in a space where the audience feels safe, so they don’t attack, don’t fight it back… In the movement or storytelling, that part is transformed, and it loses the specificity of location, gender, nationality; it becomes universal. That’s what I aim for: that it becomes universal (rather global politics than national). I am interested in the human being and the complexities of the human mind and heart. It is something that we all share as human beings. And with animals too, there are so many things that we share with animals. But we seem to think that we are separate from nature and from animals, being superior – and that’s where we have gone wrong, on many accounts.

For me, discovering ‘Outwitting the Devil’ in Avignon was experiencing a whole different approach to dance and narrative. It felt a very profound and poetic way to reflect about ancient and present times, each with their own demons and dangers. How it was to work on emphasising the uniqueness of the dancers, their individuality (withing a very homogenous piece)?

A.K.: One of the things that I am always searching for when I work with the dancers is related to how they want to communicate, what is their natural way – each person has different pitches, each has a unique voice, and it is pretty much tapping into that. The body is a voice. And I have always experienced that through my childhood, that my body became my voice very quickly, and my actual voice was never very confident, but my body voice was very confident (that’s why I went into dance). 

A core part of how I train people are based on the interplay between themes or principles and habits, and habits are what we can actually train. The principles are what we are trying to embody. That means that we will train on several habits which are the embodiment of the core principles, but the idea is to burn the principle into hundreds of manifestations of that principle that eventually becomes our way of life. It’s about ritual and about identifying certain principles and themes, then it’s about discovering how those dancers respond to those principles and themes that I’ve suggested, going further with choosing the ones that I want to focus on (particular habits), and it’s the ritual of doing it again and again until the principle which is embedded in the habit becomes natural, so it feels like those principle are embedded in the voices of those dancers. But there are two other aspects I am looking for: universality within every action of the dancer, but also individuality of every dancer. Within the movement, those two things should exist, side by side. 

“Outwitting the Devil”(2019), performed with a new cast/ photo: ©Akram Khan Company

Watching “Abide with Me”, the piece you have created in 2012 for London Olympics, it has struck me how relevant it feels especially today, when there’s so much suffering, death, and the need for hope. How do you feel about this? 

A.K.: We love to turn our back to death, but the more we acknowledge death, the more we will feel alive. We feel it’s so scary because it’s the unknown, people have different beliefs and interpretations about what happens after death. For me, it’s looking at death in order to understand what it means to be alive. What’s always fascinating about themes and arts are thresholds. The cliff’s edge of something – death is the threshold of life, of what happens after life. The reason we are talking about thresholds is because we’re suddenly going into unknown. 

In 2018, you had your last solo performance as a dancer, in “Xenos”. What have motivated your decision: was it listening to your body or wanting to focus more on something else?

A.K.: I think I just got tired of spending so much time away from my children. I am getting older, and I can feel my limitations. I wish it could be the other way around, if you get more mature and experienced, you have to train less, but no, I have to train harder – my normal class was 2 hours, now my normal class is 4 hours. This is before I even start rehearsal every day. My children’s voices in my body were speaking louder than my desire to dance on stage, so I had to listen. One of the big issues that we have which have been eroded away by modern culture is that we’ve stopped listening. We need to learn to listen again. In the cracks of the art of listening, lies empathy. So, in a sense, we’ve lost how to be empathetic. 

Most of your life you’ve been struggling with integrating the perception of otherness (the Bangladeshi roots and the radically different British culture), navigating a multi-layered, complex identity and trying to reconcile them through your creative work, through dance. Did that reconciliation happen after all or that’s a lifelong, continuous process? 

A.K.: No, it’s a lifelong process. I think the reconciliation is to accept that there will always to be negotiation and tension. Identity is constantly changing, and we forget that. Also, our thinking is changing, our spirit is changing because we are experiencing each second a different thing. Identity is a constantly evolving thing: the reconciliation is within accepting that.  

Akram Khan will receive a star on the Sibiu Walk of Fame during this year’s edition of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival. Akram Khan Dance Company, which Khan started together with the producer Farooq Chaudhry, has celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020, offering a feast of dance, music, and meaningful conversations to the online audience – The Silent Burn Project can be watched online here or as part of FITS programme. The performance “Outwitting the Devil” will be presented on 25 and 26 August, at Fabrica de Cultură IACM Construcții SA-UniCredit.

*Cover photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez