About Akram Khan
Akram Khan’s biography is full of blended heritage and culture, inspiring his way of thought and movement. He was born in London in 1974 into a Bengali background. Encouraged by his mother, Khan began folk dancing at 3 years old and learning Kathak at the age of 7 (he later became classically trained in the latter). Khan, MBE, graduated from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in 1998. A year on, the innovative Akram Khan Company was founded by Khan and Farooq Chaudhry. Khan is a dancer turned non-dancing artist of choreography - he's a kinetic artist who uses digital video to document the creative process of his works, meaning he can travel back to any moment along the choreographic journey.
Akram Khan as a Choreographer
Akram Khan’s name is globally synonymous with cutting-edge choreography and dancing that’s modern in thought but steeped in tradition. Just a quick search will bring up a tonne of Khan’s choreography, from some of his most famous works like Giselle and his more recent Xenos, to lesser known pieces like Rush. But Khan’s global choreographic creations of course span way further than what we could even begin to count. His works are daring, tap into raw emotion and have especially redefined the ballet and contemporary dance scene through fusion with styles from other cultures and philosophies. For Khan, choreographing a new work takes time: conceptualising mentally takes usually around a year for him and he later discovers the moves as they come to him. In this post we’ve rounded up our top 10 Akram Khan works (and painstakingly endeavoured to stick to only 10 despite all of the choice), along with a short summary of the choreography and production videos.
Khan is the solo performer of this gripping production, showing the border between East and West through an Indian dancer, set at the time of the First World War. Onstage musicians, like in other productions by Khan, really make the story come to life and feel tangible. It only premiered this February 2019, so Khan's creativity is definitely still flowing.
Following Dust, Khan choreographed Giselle for the dancers of The English National Ballet. We had the pleasure of seeing Giselle in a recorded live performance at the cinema last year and loved every second - we haven’t stopped talking about it at Move Dance since. The ballet dancing in this piece is particularly special for its innovation of movement, like when the dancers seem to run on all fours across the stage. The costumes were also breathtaking, especially when viewed in contrast to the plain and earthly dress of the “peasant” characters who are wearing classic Khan neutrals.
3. Chotto Desh
This autobiographical Olivier award-winning production is one for the families especially. Desh is a narrative exploring memory and ideas of home through dance, drawing upon Khan’s biographical cultural history of Bangladesh and Britain with stories. The mythical set and stories evoke his father’s memories of Bangladesh through Khan’s own imagination, taking the audience into fantasy at times. We’re treated to an elephant, a boat, a fish, a tree, a crocodile and many other characters alongside the solo performer.
4. Zero Degrees
Growing up in London with a dual heritage has impacted Khan’s life in the way that his “Kathrak eye” has been opened to racism and the feeling of being other. Zero Degrees premiered within days of the 2005 London Bombings; this was a time which made Khan more self-conscious of his identity. Khan and Sidi Larbi’s world famous production explores transience and contrast through oppositions of identity and light/dark.
5. Dust / Lest we Forget
This work was performed by the English National Ballet - it was actually the first time that Khan had worked with a ballet company. The trenches of the war - about digging back into the Earth. The word “dust” is taken from a First World War poem that Khan read; “dust” is connected to death for Khan.
6. Until the Lions
This work is a combination of Kathak and contemporary dance to tell an adapted version of Karthika Naïr’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. The show packs in powerful music and dancing, performed by Khan and only a handful of other dancers. Khan actually began his dance career as an early-teen with a part in Peter Brook’s staging of The Mahabharata, so it’s a nice return to his past. Oral tradition is strong in this tale, drawing upon the philosophy of the Kathak. Women at the forefront of the production, telling the tale of the reincarnated Amba who burnt herself alive in order to avenge herself against her former husband. It premiered in 2016.
7. Vertical Road
Khan and Andrej Petrovic shared their choreographic geniuses to create this masterpiece. The opening scene is transfixing as the sound of water pours across the stage and the figure of Salah El Brogy dances his hands behind a translucent piece of fabric, creating rippling waves like water. As ever, the incredible score drives the dancing through mood and scene changes. Inspiration for this work was taken from the poet Rumi.
Khan’s Bahok firmly resides in our memory as one of his standout pieces, despite being over 10 years old. It was performed in collaboration with the National Ballet of China and saw its last performance in 2010. Bahok brings together 8 different dancers (including Khan) from different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities, speaking different languages during the performance. We love the ferocious energy of this work; its powerful blend of acro movements, floor-based movements, contemporary and beautiful ballet keep you totally engrossed throughout and leave you craving more.
The blend of Kathak with Flamenco makes this an especially memorable piece. Akram Khan danced with Israel Galván in a freeing way of bringing dance back to motion and less about meaning. The encircling, volatile dance moves create an intense and thoroughly gripping performance.
“Kadamati” means “clay” in Bengali; Khan uses this etymology in his big dance performances of Kadamati to show how we all, as humans, are connected through the Earth. This connection became time and space physical on the 20th May 2016 when 41,000 people in 43 countries around the world became utterly connected by performing the 3-minute ritualistic dance at the same time. We love the inclusivity of this work; any dancer could partake in the free performance.
We’re looking forward to clips of the world premiere of Outwitting the Devil this July 2019. For more information, visit The Akram Khan Company’s website.
Photography provided by The Akram Khan Company and taken by Jean-Louis Fernandez