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Akram Khan - 'ma'

Directed not just choreographed

by Lyndsey Winship

November 30, 2004 -- Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

There are moments when Akram Khan’s new work, "ma", doesn’t quite become everything it promises. But there are also moments – usually when Khan himself is dancing – when gripes like this cease to matter, and all we can do is marvel at the magnificent moving bodies on stage.

Despite the success of "Kaash", Khan’s high-profile collaboration with Anish Kapoor and Nitin Sawnhey, Khan clearly had no desire to retread old ground in this, his second full-length work. So rather than rely on the seemingly abstract, quick-fire fusion of kathak and contemporary dance that has made his name, Khan has chosen to broaden his boundaries and introduce more pointed storytelling this time 'round.

At the heart of "ma" is the idea of earth – as a source of life and nurturing, a site of home and memories, as something sacred yet often abused.

"ma" has seen some development since its UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival, which is typical of a choreographer constantly questing for new, better and more complete ways to express his ideas.

On a second viewing, however, I found myself less gripped by its drama, and more critical of its shortcomings. For example, the spoken texts (written by Hanif Kureishi) only emerge some way through the piece, first in a short recollection from Khan and then, just before the end, in a poignant but comical yarn from two female dancers. This direct narrative doesn’t fully integrate with the rest of the work. It feels obvious that this is a new direction for the company, who are trying it out for size.

Nevertheless, "ma" is accomplished in many ways. For a start, it looks fantastic – danced against a lush green glow, with striking (occasionally blinding) lighting from Mikki Kunttu. Lined up at the back of the stage, vertical wires separate the dancers so that each one emerges from their own corridor. It feels as if this piece has been directed rather than merely choreographed.

Riccardo Nova’s music is used to dramatic effect. Deeply influenced by Indian classical music, the Italian composer creates a score that is plaintive, mournful and hectic in turns. In improvisatory phrases, flautist Lisa Mallet (a special guest for the London performances) sets notes floating in still, thin air while in opposition, the runaway percussion sounds like fast feet pounding on hard earth.

Khan’s choreography is still exciting; the torrents of movement full of sharp angles and swift turns accents the beats of the score. The high-impact ensemble pasages are woven with more symbolic sections, when one dancer fights to cover the eyes and ears of another, or the bodies of the cast are piled up in the centre of the stage. Are they dead, or huddling together for warmth? A head lifts at one end and feet at the other, making the shape of a boat. Look again and they seem tangled like the roots of a tree, while a single body is lifted above them, growing upwards. There is much left to the imagination.

Each dancer has their own strengths. Moya Michael, a founding member of the company is best at recreating Khan’s own steely grace; Eulalia Ayguade has a flair for spoken word, good comic timing and a very sweet persona; while long-limbed Anton Lachky brings a stealthy, animalesque quality to the stage.

But it is a whole different ball game when Khan himself dances. He has an energy, urgency and focus that is truly riveting to watch, and as much as he tries to deflect attention from himself (he barely dances for the first 15 minutes or so), you can’t help but be drawn to him. Whether his vision for "ma" is completely successful or not, it almost doesn’t matter when the dancing is this good.

Edited by Jeff.

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