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Akram Khan

'Ma'

by Ramsay Burt

October 26, 2004 -- Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

Akram Khan's "ma" represents a progressive shift from his previous pieces. With "Rush" and "Kaash" he developed his movement style through his "confusion", as he calls it, of the classical Indian and contemporary dance styles in which he trained. Formally the structure of these pieces was indebted to Western musical traditions - "Kaash" was almost a sonata with its three sections, the middle one slow and meditative, the final one a stirring conclusion.

With "ma", Khan seems to me to have adopted a more cinematic structure, with a succession of scenes, some short, some longer, some building on previous ones, others contrasting with them. Running through "ma" are sets of concerns which express themselves either through abstracted movement material or in terms of narrative and symbolism.

Khan plans to make a duet with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; he has clearly had a long hard look at Cherkaoui and Platel's Belgian reworking of Bauschian tanztheater. "ma" shows Khan taking from this what he wants and "confusing" it with what is now his signature movement style. The result is a contemporary way of combining movement, storytelling and song that correlates with the traditional Kathak way of telling stories about the Gods through mimed dancing. And whereas Les Ballet C de la B's works have a distinctly urban edge in the critical way they attempt to shove underclass experience in the face of their predominantly middle class audience, the overall ambience of "ma" is organic and natural. Like "Kaash" before it, "ma" situates itself in the intersection between aesthetic values and spiritual experience.

Interestingly, Cherkaoui's "Tempus Fugit" performed earlier this autumn in the Dance Umbrella Festival shared with "ma" similar Sufi singing, cello and percussion accompaniment, and upside down poses. Khan however has a very English sense of humour that shows in some little throw away comments or gestures he quietly made while telling stories on stage.

One recurring idea in "ma" was being upside down. It started with Faheem Mazhar singing in a Sufi vocal style while hanging by his feet with his head only a foot or so from the stage floor. Later Khan told a story about his visits as a boy to his family's farm in Bangladesh when he used to hang upside down in a tree to sort his head out. At another moment when Shanell Winlock at the front of the stage told a story that relates motherhood to growing trees and Eulalia Ayguade interrupted and gently heckled her, both dancers heads were planted on the earth while their limbs spread up like branches.

Another striking pose used in some of the publicity material for the piece shows all the dancers bent over in the same crouch, asses in the air, head to the floor and arms stretched out like wings (almost an inverted version of an iconic moment in Ailey's "Revelations"). On this level "ma" seemed to be a mystical, allegorical meditation on the sacredness of mother earth, of trees growing from earth to sky, and of women's power as nurturers. Khan gave his female dancers the central roles in "ma" .

"ma" was full of movement invention. Arms slashed through space during lightning pirouettes with the devastating precision of a Japanese sword play film. Dancers propelled themselves miraculously in slow-motion backwards hand stands as nimbly as cats.
What is so rare and special about this company is that Khan has found and, for a few years now, been able to keep together and foster some highly skilled young dancers, all of them from P.A.R.T.S.  Khan is young enough to share his dancers' passionate desire to perform at their physical and artistic limits, and clever enough to give them the seductive opportunities they crave for while moulding these together into a powerful and resonant piece.


Edited by Holly Messitt

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