The Path of Khan

Akram Khan steps into modern dance from a platform of ancient Indian technique.

When Akram Khan was about 7 years old, his mother went to a London performance of classical Indian dance.

Though she and her husband were from originally from Bangladesh, she was dazzled by the ancient Indian art form. Inspired particularly by the male dancers, she decided to sign her hyperactive son up for lessons.

"I had been doing Bangladeshi folk dance," Khan said by telephone from a Los Angeles hotel room last week, speaking in a soft English accent. "Predominantly, my mother taught me. But classical dance has structure, an extreme structure. It has clear boundaries, and it's danced to traditional Indian music."

His early, intensive training in the ancient movements of Kathak, the classical dance of northern India, still forms the backbone of the work of Khan, a contemporary choreographer and dancer who's rapidly becoming an international sensation. Two years ago, he and the other four dancers of his Akram Khan Dance Company visited only two U.S. cities on an American tour. This time around, they're ping-ponging to cities across the continent, from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Portland to Toronto, with a stint coming up in New York's Joyce Theatre, bastion of modern dance. And they've picked up raves all along the way.

The Philadelphia Inquirer critic put Khan's new evening-length piece Kaash in her personal "pantheon of choreography," allotting the 29-year-old choreographer a berth alongside the likes of Merce Cunningham and Lucinda Childs. Khan brings the hour-long piece to Tucson's Centennial Hall Saturday night.

"We've gone so quickly, in three years, from being unknown in the contemporary dance world to suddenly being thrown into the international dance scene," Kahn said. "It's been a real shift; it's very different."

What makes Khan's work so distinctive is its merging of a contemporary Western aesthetic with an ancient Asian one. Kathak, which means "story," has always combined Muslim dance traditions with Hindi. Khan has added something new. Instead of the elaborate ritual costumes of Indian temple dancers, who wear bells strapped to their ankles to accentuate the rhythms of the music, Khan's international troupers perform in simple black tunics. The dancers hail from South Africa, Spain and Malaysia. The New York Times characterized their high-velocity movements on stage as "Shiva meets Martha Graham, at a very high speed."

"They're very strong contemporary dancers," Khan said, "but I teach them Kathak every day."

But it's too simplistic to say that Khan has simply overlaid modern movement onto Asian gestures.

"I don't believe in the word 'fusion,'" Khan said. "That's superficial. And fusion works are superficial. The best way to describe it is 'confusion.' The body is confused and starts to make decisions for itself."

The title Kaash is a Hindi word for "if"; the piece evokes Shiva, the many-armed Hindu dancing god who is associated with both creation and destruction.

"I was inspired by Shiva, but once in the studio, I let go of that idea," Khan said. "We went on a journey but I never set out to make it a piece with a message. It's open to interpretation."

The music is by the young English composer Nitin Sawhney, a son of Indian immigrants who has a great understanding of traditional Indian music, Khan said. A London-trained Indian designer, Anish Kapoor, designed the elaborate set, and an Irishwoman, Aideen Malone, put together the lighting.

Khan is accustomed to this kind of cultural mélange. His Muslim parents emigrated to England in the early '70s, and shortly after that, he was born into London's "melting pot of cultures," he said. He grew up in a "mixed neighborhood with small pockets of resemblance to India. There were south Asians, Africans, a mixture." Khan's father is a businessman and his mother a teacher who is involved in organizing cultural events.

As a young Kathak student, Khan was not immune to secular show biz. A great hero was Michael Jackson, whom he "saw on TV a lot around the time of Thriller. He was a huge inspiration for his performance quality. As a kid, I tried to copy him."

In his mid-teens, Kahn made his own foray into popular entertainment, dancing to the live music of Ravi Shankar in a Jungle Book production that traveled internationally, and in Peter Brooks' stage production of The Mahabharata. But as he grew older, he became a "disciple" of his Kathak teacher, and wanted to pursue dance more seriously.

"My community wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. I said, 'I don't want to do either of those, but I'll go to a university and get a degree in dance.'" At De Montfort University and later at the Northern School of Contemporary, he first trained in modern and ballet.

"My body took to contemporary dance," he said. "I was surprised. I liked it--the body opens up."

A student solo that he presented at Dance Umbrella in London, incorporating classical Indian elements, created a great "hoo-hah," he remembered. "The audience loved it. It was a career point. I was suddenly in the newspaper."

He started winning invitations and awards, culminating in a chance to dance with 25 young performers from around the world at the PARTS contemporary dance school in Brussels. At PARTS, he met most of the dancers now in his troupe, which he formed in 2000.

After some initial ambivalence, he said, his parents "are proud of the work. They've always been supportive." He finds that some audience members come to see contemporary, but end up enchanted by its classical elements. South Asian dance purists "have a little bit of a problem with it. ... We do present classical work every two years in London. ... That is where I truly feel at home."