Something I wrote; this was first published in the Asian Age on September 13, 2012.
Eager crowds inciting near-stampede situations are an unlikely sight at dance performances. But once in a while, there comes a dancer who can drive audiences to a point just beyond reason. Akram Khan is one such artist. In Mumbai on Tuesday, their fourth stop in a six-city Indian tour as part of The Park’s New Festival, the Akram Khan Dance Company finished their performance leaving audiences in a state of suspended anticipation.
A British-Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan trained in Kathak with Pratap Pawar from an early age. Later, he studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, beginning to present solo performances of his work in the 1990s before co-founding the Akram Khan Dance Company with producer Farooq Chaudhry in 2000. What is interesting about the company is that it was, from its inception, a conscious collaboration between an artist and a manager who sought to form innovative business models in dance. In a not so well-publicised series of discussions travelling with the festival, the British Council features Chaudhry and Khan with local panelists in a discussion on contemporary dance and the business of arts in India.
On Tuesday, the company performed Gnosis, an evening of classical Kathak and contemporary dance. Gnosis begins with Polaroid Feet, choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. It incorporates an Ardhanariswara verse composed by Lacchu Maharaj.
A rectangular path of light that cut the stage in half, running upstage to downstage, was the space Khan began in, a grounding motif he would return to often in the course of his performance., Khan intersperses the austere heaviness of Shiva with the grace and languor of Parvati. Bursting with explosive energy, his body sometimes finds itself in unlikely forms, the vigour of Shiva lingering on in the lasya of Parvati.
The first few instances of tatkar (Kathak footwork) are met with resounding applause and cheers. Kathak tends to exacerbate itchy palms in clap-happy audiences. The dynamic between dancer and musicians is fascinating and used to Khan’s advantage. The musicians get their spot in the sun; the vocalist Faheem Mazhar sings a fairly elaborate bandish as Khan disappears for a quick costume change. Later, Khan invites his two percussionists, Bernhard Schimpelsberger on drums and percussions and Sanju Sahai on tabla, to have a friendly dialogue, as he takes a quick breather between two rounds of tatkar.
What Khan and D’Lo, the queer political theatre artist/ comedian who performed on Monday share, is the ability to seamlessly weave the personal into performance, and in turn, an almost-courageous willingness to use art to reflect on life. Khan is at his charming best when he breaks off in the middle of his second piece, Tarana, to talk to the audience. He speaks of his strong rooting in tradition, and why he shall never break away. He tells stories that have shaped, for him, an experience of spirituality, over time. He says, “I feel the need to continue with tradition simply because I feel it is eroding away. When I work with the contemporary, I see it as research; that is my laboratory space. But tradition grounds me. I see classical work as imbued with the spiritual and I can never move away from it.”
And then, without much ado, as if that is what must logically follow, he recites the bols of teentala and proceeds to engage in percussive argument, throwing challenges at Schimpelsberger and Sahai. Every Kathak recital accompanied by musicians makes the most out of percussion-dancer jugalbandis. Yet Khan seems especially playful, almost belligerently tossing his head to mock the two percussionists after he executes a particularly complex phrase with his feet. There is mischief in movement, and that in costume – Khan’s dangerously low-waisted churidars peek out from under his achkan in particularly exuberant moments.
At the end of the first half, Khan begins a sequence of footwork; this seems to travel upwards, through his body, until his entire body unabashedly vibrates with the energy of the tatkar. Eventually, the last pool of light onstage bears down on him, and then the darkness swallows him whole.
The second, eponymous half of Gnosis begins with guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu, a former principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company. This piece is inspired by the story of Gandhari from the Mahabharata, a queen who chooses to blindfold herself so that she can share her blind husband’s journey. It again begins in a square pool of harsh light, a pool that grows as Fang-Yi Sheu scopes the space around her and feels its boundaries. While trying to find her Gandhari, in one section, she keeps her eyes shut; this is followed by a section of intense partnering with Khan, a long white staff the span of distance between them. After the performance, she reveals – though she must open her eyes in order to work with Khan in the duets, she cannot make eye contact and thus her knowledge of his presence is greatly hinged on the sound of his movement. She demonstrates quickly - what she uses most often in Gnosis tethers her gaze to her body angles, whereas isolating her head and moving it sideways produces an entirely different quality of focus.
Beyond skill and virtuosity, creating engaging performance is the art of balancing infinitesimal quantities. As the company takes its final bow, spectators longingly wonder if there is more to come. It is clear that Gnosis assimilates fully the potential of ephemeral desires.