Feature: Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism

Monday 20 July 2015 by Carmel Smith

Royona Mitra’s new book – Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism, is the first full length study of the work of the world famous British-Asian choreographer. Although it is primarily an academic work anyone interested in Khan’s work will find it packed with fascinating insights. We asked Dr Mitra (who is a Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London) to tell us more about her book…

When did you first come across Akram Khan’s work?
I was a Masters student at Royal Holloway studying Physical Theatre and keen to discover how other British South Asian artists were negotiating multiple performance traditions and cultural reference points in their art successfully. This is because I trained in the north Indian classical dance form of kathak (same as Akram) from a very young age and then travelled to the UK and trained in contemporary dance and physical theatre. I wanted to discover how other artists were negotiating these cultural and artistic tensions, which I felt in my own body, in their art.
The first piece I saw of Akram’s was Polaroid Feet, one of his earlier classical pieces in 2000 as the Royal Festival Hall in London. Two things remain with me from this first encounter: – In this solo Akram stripped off all classical costumes and paraphernalia in favour of stark, black linen trousers and a fitted tunic/shirt. This stripping down really helped us to engage with the sheer power of his physicality unfiltered and undecorated. – In very accessible terms Akram broke the illusion of fourth wall of the proscenium arch stage and spoke to his audience, explaining key principles of kathak before demonstrating them through his dance.
For me these two strategies really challenged western tendencies to perceive South Asian dancers, as voiceless, passive and colourful exotic objects, meant to be consumed.

How did his work come to be part of your academic research?
I returned to Royal Holloway in 2006 to start my PhD research while lecturing full time at the University of Wolverhampton because I felt I never did resolve those issues within my own identity and physical training about moving between multiple performance traditions and cultures. It was as part of my doctoral research, in trying to find answers for my own condition, that I decided to focus on Akram’s living trajectory of dance works. I completed my PhD in 2011 with a thesis entitled Akram Khan: Performing the Third Space. My book is a significant reframing of and departure from my PhD thesis.

One of the central themes of the book is that you think Khan’s work has been wrongly categorised as ‘contemporising kathak’…
Very simply put I resist categorising his aesthetic into any neat labels – that is one of the arguments I make in the book consistently. I do however leave my framing of his works open enough to claim that he is using principles and philosophies from his kathak training to transform the landscape of British contemporary dance in intercultural ways. And because his work is on-going, I feel this open-endedness is more suitable than the closing down offered by labels such as ‘contemporary kathak’ – a term often associated with Akram’s works.

Can you give a quick definition of ‘interculturalism’ – as it appears in the title of the book?
In the book I make a distinction between the noun ‘interculturalism’ and its adjectival form ‘intercultural’ to distinguish between the former as an embodied philosophy/lived reality and the latter as an intellectual project. I take forward scholars Ted Cantle’s and Rustom Bharucha’s views on interculturalism as a political and philosophical alternative to the now well-trodden debates around the failures of state-initiated multiculturalism, which manifested in the ghettoisation of co-existent cultures, without providing the infrastructure to create productive dialogue between them. Interculturalism is instead a lived reality of many immigrant lives that skilfully negotiate multiple cultural, social, linguistic and natural reference points as hybrid subjects in an increasingly globalised world.

In some ways it’s a privilege to be writing about living dance history in the making – but are there challenges in that as well?
Yes, it is just as rewarding and privileging as it is nerve-wracking and challenging to write about an artist who is a living body of dance history and whose future work may well unravel my current claims in the book. I had to be careful not to shut down alternative modes of interpretations and had to be mindful that my main purpose is to open up a field of discussion about Akram in a scholarly context, since my book also happens to be the first book-length study of his works. I also found it challenging to find the final case study for my book as Akram continued to make more and more work. However the joy of actually being able to collaborate closely with the artist one is writing about, to seek clarification and find the opportunities to understand things from their perspective, by far outweighs the challenges. The really crucial part of this is to strike a balance between the open access I had to the company’s archives, interviews, digital footage, anecdotes etc and an objectivity in my scholarship. Akram and the company were excellent at giving me this full access but never censored my academic writing – it was a win-win situation for any academic.

Did you do many interviews in the course of your writing?
As well as Akram, I interviewed the Company’s producer Farooq Chaudhry several times in person and via email and found our interactions incredibly fruitful and informative. I also interviewed Akram’s mother, Anwara Khan, whose insight into their life in London in the 1970s and ’80s and Bangladeshi immigrants trying to create a sense of the homeland away from home, was crucial to my understanding of how Akram’s biographical circumstances inform his art in implicit and explicit ways. Towards the end of my project I interviewed Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet just after she commissioned Akram to choreograph Dust, as part of ENB’s commemorative piece on the First World War Lest We Forget. That was also a very inspiring moment in my research.

You focus on several key works, rather than biographical detail – how did you choose which works to concentrate on?
I do both actually. I interweave biography, socio-cultural histories and detailed analysis of specific case studies in the book. I chose the works I have seen live several times (except for the dance-film Loose in Flight and the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony) and that have resonated with me at personal levels around the framing theme of ‘new interculturalism’. Each case study teases out one particular angle of my discussion of ‘new interculturalism’ and there are seven of them in the book, not presented in a chronological manner. I also ensure there are enough examples of works where Akram performs and those where he is the choreographer/artistic director to signal that his aesthetic manifests in multiple ways.

If you had to choose one as his most ‘significant’ work so far, which would it be?
In terms of the scale of its political resonance I think Akram’s collaboration with the dancer/choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley in zero degrees (2005) has to be high up in the list.

In terms of his aesthetic and critical response to the 1980s brand of intercultural theatre where western theatre-makers borrowed from non-western texts, artefacts, traditions and people in the name of exchange (and Akram was himself a part of one such project, Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Indian epic of the Mahabharata), Gnosis (2010) stands out for me.

In terms of taking the political power of contemporary dance to a global and uninitiated audience through his powerful choreography on hope and legacy in multi-ethnic communities, his piece at the London Olympics’ Opening Ceremony (2012) is most definitely significant.

Akram’s work is characterised by collaborations – do you see this as part of ‘interculturalism’?
Yes, collaborations are fundamental to Akram’s ‘new interculturalism’. They involve negotiation, sensitivity, respect, integrity and curiosity towards enabling fair and ethnical exchange between those involved. I am particularly excited to see how Akram’s recent appointment as collaborating choreographer of the English National Ballet will manifest in his revival for the classic Giselle, in terms of a genuine and dynamic collaboration between the worlds of classical ballet and contemporary dance, and hope to see these historical divides collapse/blur as promised by Dust.

Who is your book for?
First and foremost it’s for undergraduate and postgraduate dance and theatre students, scholars and intercultural performance practitioners. However it is also for those who consider themselves fans of Khan’s work as it hopefully provides a new context and lens through which to view and understand his works.

Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism is part of Palgrave’s New Choreographies series, RRP: £55.

Akram Khan’s new work Until the Lions, a co-production with Sadler’s Wells and the Roundhouse premieres in January, 2016.

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