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Akram Khan is a dancer
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"I like to deal with things that I fear."
Conversations
1 October 2012

Akram Khan is a dancer

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic
Photography by Poras Chaudhary

Sofija Stefanovic on Akram Khan

To watch Akram Khan dance is a sight to behold, and to a layperson like me, he seems to be of another species. He does things I could never do: spinning endlessly, bending whip-quick and in unnatural ways, telling a story that grows inside me as I watch, unsure of whether I am inventing it, or if he’s instilling it. I’m not often moved by dance; I probably don’t understand its nuances. But Akram Khan stirs up forgotten thoughts.

Khan was trained in Kathak dance, a classical Indian form invented by performing nomads. Kathak means ‘storyteller’. Kathak masters have incredible speed, balance and grace. They move to complex patterns and rhythms. Kathaks are also mimes. With a rubbery grace they emulate animals and also the gods; Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh. And for someone who’s body is almost godlike, what chaos an injury can create.

Khan was chosen by director Danny Boyle to conclude the Olympic opening ceremony. In semi-darkness, he and fifty others danced. Their brief from Boyle? Mortality. Controversially, NBC cut the segment from their coverage, denying American viewers the chance to see Emeli Sandé singing “Abide with Me” as Khan and his troupe performed in dust. Akram Khan’s piece ‘jarred a little’ with the rest of the ceremony—it wasn’t ‘easy viewing’. But Danny Boyle chose Akram Khan for a reason: he knew the choreographer could mesmerise the Olympic stadium into a breathless silence, imposing thoughtfulness on the world.

Akram isn’t ready for our phone interview. He apologises, politely, and asks me to call back. I do. He’s still out of sorts. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me these mornings, after my injury. Just getting up in the morning is really tough. Since my injury… something’s changed in my body.”

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

SOFIJA STEFANOVIC: Your injury, it’s your Achilles, right?

AKRAM KHAN: Yeah… my Achilles tendon. Yeah.

You did that a little while ago. It’s still giving you trouble, hey?

It’s going to give me trouble for a while. It’s a complete tear, so it means that it will take a good year to heal fully. And it’s only been seven months. At the moment I can dance, but it’s not the same.

With dancing, I imagine that it’s so much to do with control.

Yeah, it’s a lot about control. I’m watching the athletics at the Olympics and that’s about power and speed. But with dancing, power and speed are just one part of it. It’s so much about control. It’s one of the most important parts. And the Achilles tendon is the thing that keeps you balanced, it keeps you upright, it allows you to walk, it allows you to elevate. So it’s challenging. But we’ll see how we go.

I notice that you don’t seem to be too averse to challenge. You do a little bit of that in your work.

[Chuckles] I’ve got a film crew waiting for me today.

Oh?

We’re making a film.

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

It’s an incredible story. A political, true story about an Iranian dancer. He danced secretly and formed a little dance group. He was in love with YouTube, and people he saw on YouTube — that’s how he learned to dance; the four people he had seen were Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Pina Bausch. And then I discovered the fourth dancer was me. I was really moved.

Wow.

It’s interesting what we take for freedom. We don’t consider being afraid to go into a studio and dance. In Iran you’re not allowed—if they catch you dancing, you’re in trouble, and it can be death.

So what happened?

Secretly, he organised his friends. There was handshaking; they were sending little messages about where it was going to be, what time it was. It was filmed. He wanted to put it on YouTube because he wanted the world to see, ‘Look, we love dance’. He got caught. They were about to shoot him, and his friend pushed him out of the way and got shot in the head and died. So the film’s about that.

What happened to him?

He is finally studying for the first time, in an actual dance class. A lot of artists helped him get out of the country, because in Iran, they wanted to kill him. Now he lives in Paris, learning in the Conservatoire.

And are you collaborating with him on this film?

No, no… they brought me in to make his work look better. He really wants to dance, but it’s not sophisticated. He is limited. And that’s really beautiful, because it’s the truth. There’s no choreographical structure there, it’s primitive, it’s very naïve, but it’s not that he’s not talented. So, I’m kind of busy choreographing that now.

I think dancers are the gods of the athletes, but they’re never recognised for it.
Akram Khan

I was reading a quote from you about the Olympics and you said, “It seems almost natural for arts and sports to sit side-by-side. In both we desire to test the very limits of what we are capable of doing.” Am I right in saying that you like making connections between things that aren’t traditionally connected?

You know, I think there are connections. I think people just don’t see them. As a civilisation, we always like to separate things. In the West, you have dance critics, theatre critics, music critics. The thing is, they are all interconnected. When someone’s doing dance, they are telling a story; it’s narrative.

It’s easier for people to understand things they have boxed in. When things merge into one another they become difficult to talk about, perhaps.

So, things fit on a spectrum?

Yes. For example, I think dancers are the gods of the athletes, but they’re never recognised for it. Because dance is so eternal, it’s so much more sophisticated than athletics. I’ve been watching athletics for a while, and I’m amazed — there’s a sophistication to dance; it has to convey a message! It has to convey poetry! It has to be poetic, it has to be graceful, it has to be violent. When a racer runs a hundred metres, it’s incredible how much attention they receive. And all they do is train to run in a straight line, as fast as they can. Basically, that’s what Usain Bolt does — with a huge amount of talent and training. That’s not what we do in dance. We don’t run in straight lines for a hundred metres. Gymnastics is recognised and we aren’t… I find that incredible.

But, In a sense, I’m also happy that dance is not recognised as a sport. Because for me, dance is above that. You can’t put a gold medal on a dancer, because each is unique, each is individual.

Is that your favourite thing about dance? That it’s so dynamic and changing?

Very much so. Ever since I was a child, I was a big follower of Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. I loved what Bruce Lee said about how martial arts allows you to express yourself, truly through your body. What you cannot say in words, you can say through your body. Bruce Lee had a huge problem with the style he followed. He studied Wing Chun and when he went to America he was very unhappy because he realised that it was limiting him. So he started to borrow and learn from other styles, even Western forms like boxing and wrestling. He incorporated those styles because he believed that one has to constantly learn, not just from one’s tradition, but from other traditions and other forms. And that makes your form richer. I’ve always believed in that. He says, ‘Be like water,’ because it can transform its shape depending on what container it goes into.

How did you choose your form?

I didn’t choose my form. My mother pushed me into it. And I was very grateful that she did, because I liked it. Kathak is the form that I studied, that I am still studying. In London in the eighties, there wasn’t much Indian classical dance and not many masters. But there was one male master, Sri Patap Pawar. She saw him and thought it would be good for me to learn from a male dancer, who would probably inspire me. And so she put me into that class, and it just happened to be Kathak.

I bet she’s happy about that now.

Yeah, she’s very happy. They went through a very difficult time because there was a period where I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t see a future in dance. And I said to myself, Do I work in my dad’s restaurant? Which I really didn’t want to do. So I just plunged in and took a gamble, and went to university. Which was wonderful, because that’s where I discovered contemporary dance for the first time. And my mum was relieved that I went to university. Because she was worried about me making a career, or anyone making a career…

… from traditional dancing?

Yeah.

One thing I’ve noticed about Kathak is that it seems to be incredibly precise and mathematical.

Yes it is.

Are you good at maths?

No, I was very average.

My grandfather was a genius. He was a two time gold medalist of India. And, he created a theorem that is still being studied at Cambridge and Oxford and Yale, and all over the world. I thought I had a bit of that genius. As a child I was really getting into maths, because I had this belief that I must have inherited some of his talent. And after failing my maths course three times, I kind of got the picture.

The truth hit me: nope, I have no talent in maths! But, I like maths a lot. Indian classical dance has a lot of maths in it.

It’s a lot about rhythms and patterns and even and odd numbers?

It is.

I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of an obsessive–compulsive tendency, so I think that it would eventually drive me crazy. Aren’t you constantly counting?

Yes.

So, when you’re anxious, does it get bad?

Yes it does. But I think it’s about getting to a position where you’re doing it so much that you don’t have to count any more, you can feel the numbers. I’m not going to say I can do it, but there are masters, and it’s in their blood, because they’ve done it so many years for so many hours. Mathematics is language for them; it’s speaking normally, it’s saying hello. With them, it’s really organic. They’ve gotten over that barrier of struggling with it.

I think you have an amazing way of storytelling, while it seems a lot of contemporary dance doesn’t have a strong narrative structure…

You know, contemporary dance has two elements to it, like all dance forms. You have the pure elements, the abstract elements—structure, bodies, science. And you have the narrative, the more literal. What I love about contemporary dance is that it gives you the space to interpret the story yourself, all you have to do is suggest something. And this I love: the audience will not truly know what certain visual symbols represent. But each person will have their own interpretation. In a sense that’s what I find very special about contemporary dance: you have the possibility to imagine what it is for you, personally.

You’re coming to Australia with your show DESH soon.

Yeah, to Melbourne.

Yes!

I’m so excited!

I’m so excited! I love that it’s a story about immigration. I’m—as many Australians are—an immigrant. A lot of your work is about the immigration experience…

This particular piece is about identity. I suppose the immigration part is about my father; it’s his story rather than mine. It’s very much about fear of the generation that’s emigrated. Fear of losing their culture, fear of their culture disintegrating in front of their eyes, within their own children.

Aha.

It’s very personal—and when I say personal I mean true. It’s a very close account to my experience with my father, which was challenging to do. My father took it really well. I explained to him that it’s not really a reflection of him; it’s the reflection of many people who face the same problems—where their children don’t connect. I didn’t connect with Bangladesh the way he wanted me to.

I connected in a very English way, in a very Western way. Like, ‘Oh wow, Bangladesh is exotic, it’s hot, it’s an adventure, but this is not my home.’ I always knew I was coming home, back to London.

Yep.

So I could never live there because that culture, that way of life is not something that I’m accustomed to. When my parents moved over to London they brought with them a memory bank, of what it was like in Bangladesh in the early seventies. However, Bangladesh has changed, as any country would, over forty years. When they go back, they don’t recognise Bangladesh anymore. So they feel like foreigners in their own land.

I think they are a lost generation. Because they’re neither at home here, or there. They call England home now, because they don’t want to be away from their children. My parents always said, ‘We’ll move back one day, when you’ve grown older, when you’ve gotten married…’ But no. They’ve been acclimatised to the West, and Bangladesh is not what it used to be.

Same with my parents. For me, I feel like I fit here where I am, but I definitely have a Serbian identity. So people in Australia see me as a Serb, but then in Serbia people see me as an Australian.

Yeah, that’s so true. I’m the same.

And your parents, what do they think of DESH, in the end?

My mum was a bit upset in the beginning. She said, ‘You put my life on the stage. Everything you’re doing, I recognise, because I was there when that happened.’ There are some bits which are not part of my life… I don’t have a niece, but I wanted a young character to show the typical problem of what happens with the generation after me: how the older I get, the more I gently push Bangladeshi culture towards the next generation. And then I think, Oh my father did that, and I rebelled against it.

Right.

I think we will become more Serbian or more Bangladeshi the older we get.

Ha! I think you might be right.

I think that’s what will happen.

But you could’ve put less of your life in the piece. What makes you put in your really specific experiences, the ones that disturb your mother? Why didn’t you just make them up?

I think there’s always been an element of truth in every work I’ve done. That’s not just unique for me, I think it’s with every person who’s expressive and wants to tell a story. It just depends to what degree…

There seems to be a spiritual core radiating out of your work.

I would like to think so. Probably because of my own background; my own ideas of my life, of being very drawn towards spirituality… But I don’t practise anything. The only thing I practise is my dance. I feel I tap into spirituality through my dance. To learn Indian dance, you’re not just taught the physical. They guide you towards spirituality, because dance is so embedded in religion.

And again, we’re talking about spectrums and interconnectedness, rather than compartments.

Yeah, exactly, absolutely.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that you’re unafraid of collaboration.

No, I’m very afraid.

You are afraid? Oh good! Tell me about that.

I’m afraid to be afraid. Does that make sense?

Ah, no.

I like to deal with things that I fear. In the beginning I was so terrified that I thought, I want to do it. I want to do the very thing that I’m terrified of.

And it’s challenging. Very challenging. Depending on who you’re working with, what kind of artist you’re working with. And somehow the most challenging ones are the most rewarding ones.

So, considering you fear collaboration, you’re kind of pushing it. For example, you choose to work with Juliette Binoche, who hasn’t danced before. Is it because you like a handicap?

Yeah. I like things that put you in a new place, which immediately makes it a challenge, creates an opportunity for learning. The second you’re put in a desert, for example—and say you’ve never been in a desert, you’ve always been close to the sea—you’re learning. New situations allow you to learn about yourself. You can predict what you are going to be like in new situations, but we will never really know.

And is it exhilarating while it’s happening? When you’re in that fear situation is it thrilling?

Ah… sometimes. Sometimes it’s really traumatic. It really depends on which artist you’re working with, and how that relationship forms. Sometimes there’s chemistry, but sometimes it can be really traumatic.

Speaking of traumatic, how many people watched your performance at the Olympic opening ceremony?

I’m not sure. It wasn’t shown in America, my bit. The NBC cut it out. Did you read about it?

I did. I’d love to hear your take on it.

It’s just very sad. I was disappointed that they decided that that was too artistic for the American public. And they wanted numbers—audience rather than quality. A lot of people felt it was an important part of the show. The rest of the show was more joyful and playful, and what I was doing was about mortality.

I didn’t expect NBC to do that—it was strange.

No, I didn’t either. I was in a press conference and a journalist said, ‘How do you feel about NBC cutting this?’ I was a bit shocked. I hadn’t heard about it. I just felt… who are they to judge what the audience should see? It shows how dangerous people in the media are. My bit is only five minutes, but I felt sad because America’s only going to see, predominantly one side of England, which is the party side. But what about the more profound side?

And it was such an important part of the whole piece.

I felt so. But then I noticed nobody talks about it except the artistic people. In news, they never even mention it. They always talk about James Bond and the Queen. And I’m not complaining, I understand, the Queen is the most famous person in England. They talk about all the other things, but they never mention what I did. There was not one article.

Why do you think that is?

I think because it’s not accessible. I don’t know what it is, to be honest with you. But I was a little bit sad about it. Not that I wanted more—it’s just that I wish people acknowledged it. When I saw the show I thought well, this bit is kind of more… fragile.

And it requires viewers to think. Like you were saying earlier about dance, different people experience it in different ways.

We are dumbing the audience down. Basically, what they did is, they insulted their own American audience. A lot of contemporary art in the sixties and seventies came out of America. There was a huge revolution, the music, the art, the painting.

There is definitely an audience for it there, but it’s just the way the media works. The more numbers you have, the better the piece is, in their eyes.

And I think that what’s confusing to some people about your work is the very thing that makes it powerful.

It’s funny. When Danny Boyle first said, ‘I’d like you to do something about mortality,’ I was quite shocked. I thought, Wow, you’re really going to do mortality. So our piece ended the artistic part of the ceremony, and then the athletes came out. And that was so surprising, because you don’t normally deal with the subject of mortality just before the gladiators come out and do their walk!

Yes!

And I thought, What an artistic, brave move by Danny. And I remember being quite surprised and asking him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely, I want to remind everyone that we will all return back to the earth one day. This is only momentary. These successes in the Olympics are just twenty seconds of that run, and it stays with you, but we will all—all of us, ordinary people or super athletes—we will all return back to the earth. And that’s what connects us.’

It was very brave of him. I really, really appreciate that he did that and that he gave me that opportunity. I’m really grateful for that.

You’ve worked with some quite incredible people now. Who’s your dream person to work with, next?

Thomas Heatherwick.

And what’s your criteria for people who you like to work with?

If their work moves me, I’d like to learn more about it. I’d like to learn more about myself. I’d like to find out why I am drawn to Thomas Hetherwick’s pavilion [at Expo 2010 in Shanghai]. You know his pavilion?

Yes.

It’s just an incredible piece of work. And Danny introduced me to him—Thomas did the cauldron in the Olympic ceremony. We got in a taxi together, we were returning back to the rehearsal studio. I didn’t know who he was, and in the end I said, ‘I’ve never heard of you, what pieces have you choreographed?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, I’m not a choreographer. I’m an engineer, I’m a designer.’ And I said, ‘But you talk like a choreographer! You talk as if your subjects are moving, that’s why I misunderstood you completely.’ It was a forty-minute journey, and for the whole forty minutes, I just assumed he was a choreographer. He spoke in terms of movement, and living things. Then when he showed me what he did, I was completely overwhelmed by it. Especially the pavilion. So that’s someone I’d really like to work with. The other thing I’d like to do one day, is to direct a film of DESH.

Wow. That would be amazing.

Yeah, I’d like to make a feature film. But that’s a dream. In reality, of course, who knows me in the film world? Nobody. And it’s another thing raising money. Art films are far more difficult to make these days…

You don’t seem like someone who’s concerned by overcoming difficulty though.

We’ve always been very lucky. My producer Farooq Chaudhry is my main collaborator—we dream of things together. I’m not a soloist in that sense. The vision, he’s very much integral to that. So we spoke about me directing a film one day, so he’s looking into that. He comes up with a lot of the ideas and suggestions and thoughts and then I make a decision. So my biggest collaborator is Farooq.

I’d be so excited to see a film by you.

Well, let’s see. You see DESH first. But I’m so nervous to be coming to Melbourne. Not nervous, but very aware of my injury and… let’s see what happens. I go to India at the end of this month and it’ll be the first time I perform a full-length piece. Hopefully that will give me the confidence for DESH. Or, at least give my Achilles tendon the confidence to do DESH.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

Photography by Poras Chaudhary

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