Review: Akram Khan Company in Gnosis at Sadler's Wells
Reviewed: 26 April
Akram Khan stands before his audience, resplendent in a saffron-yellow angarkha, and tells us that his musicians are feeling nervous. This isn’t a cause for concern, however: he wisely adds “I think it’s important to be fragile and nervous. It allows you to stay in the moment.” Onstage, of course, Khan appears neither fragile nor nervous – that remarkable body is as strong and supple as ever, the lines as sculpted and the twirling lotus wrists as graceful as they always have been.
Billed as Khan’s first solo work in four years, Gnosis in fact reveals such sensitive dialogue between Khan and his five gifted musicians that it is much closer to an ensemble work. The musicians – a vocalist, sarod player, cellist, table player and the multi-talented Yoshie Sunahata on taiko drums – remain on stage throughout the piece in the classical style, as much a part of the performance as Khan himself.
The showcase begins with a revisitation of Gauri Sharma Tripathi’s 2001 work Polaroid Feet, Khan prowling towards the audience along a strip of light towards the taiko drums. Back to the audience, his torso and limbs curve fluidly, those mesmerising hands whirling and flicking, feet drumming ever-faster rhythms on the floor with exacting precision. Khan’s technical ability is well attested, but he’s also a magnetic performer, breathing life into every chakkar he turns before stopping on a dime.
Following a musical interlude that celebrates the mellifluous vocals of Khan’s long-time collaborator Faheem Mazhar, Khan returns to perform Pratap Pawar’s Tarana. The performance is elegant yet powerful – for all the grace of his hand and footwork, Khan is a very masculine performer, hitting every posture with vigour and poise despite the punishing speed of the rhythms. The first half closes with an insight into the collaborative nature of Kathak as Khan improvises with each of his musicians in turn. Unplugged feels like part mehfil,part jam-session as tabla, cello, feet and bells bring each other to life.
Inspired by a section from the Mahabharata in which Queen Gandhari blindfolds herself in sympathy with her blind husband, new work Gnosis sets a very different mood. To the scratches of an electronic soundscore, Yoshie Sunahata advances down the stage bearing a long white staff. Lunging low to the stage, the dancer straddles a rectangle of light, her feet planted to the spot as she shifts restlessly from side to side, slicing and pounding the air with her hands. The repeated arm gestures, softly weighted movements and striking box-shaped lighting design are more than a little reminiscent of the work of Russell Maliphant.
As the work unfolds and Khan joins his partner onstage, the abstract develops into the personal – Sunahata’s repeated motions transform into gestures of anguish; the body crumbling, then meeting Khan’s for comfort. The white staff, too, transforms – from a blind woman’s white stick into a crutch, a weapon, and at one rather dramatic point a missile flung into the first row of the audience. Khan’s body winds around Sunahata’s, seeking forgiveness as she steps repeatedly over his prone form.
In the final scenes, Sunahata’s haunting vocal tells of grief and desolation at the end of the Mahabharata war. Khan jerks and shudders at the front of the stage, his animal body increasingly out of control until it falls into one final, shattering spasm, shocking the audience into silence before the rapturous applause.
Uniting mythological themes with contemporary presentation, and combining the rare talents of world-class dance and musical performers, Gnosis is dramatic dance theatre at its most elevated.