“Art is not the most crucial element when it comes to human survival, but it is what makes us more human,” said Akram Khan over the phone from a London cab on a particularly busy day. At one point, my discussion with one of the most noteworthy choreographers yet humble artists of our time was interrupted in order for him to coordinate a rehearsal over the phone.
The first time Greek audiences got a chance to see Khan’s work was a few years back at the Kalamata International Dance Festival. At the time he had been one the young rising stars whom the festival’s artistic director, Vicky Maragopoulou, had singled out during her working trips abroad. Indeed, he subsequently went on to develop a brilliant career which has included choreographing a portion of the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012.
After apologizing for the delays and the interruptions during our interview, Khan went on to answer my questions (while he even remembered our encounter in London two years previously at Sadler’s Wells, which was staging a performance of the award-winning “Desh,” a production which also traveled to the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens) before hanging up with a “Take care.” Comparisons with certain well-known Greek choreographers – whose behavior is quite different – are hard to avoid.
The Onassis Cultural Center is currently hosting a series of performances (to March 15) of “Torobaka,” a production created jointly by Khan and renowned Spanish flamenco dancer Israel Galvan. The name “Torobaka,” from the bull (toro) and the cow (vaca), is a combination of the symbols of Spain and Bangladesh (where Khan’s family originates from), respectively. The production brings together Galvan’s flamenco tradition and Khan’s contemporary form largely based on kathak, an Indian dance which he has been practicing since the age of 7. “Torobaka” premiered at Grenoble, France, in June 2014, followed by Sadler’s Wells later in the year.
“A Spanish producer introduced us and when I met Israel I felt that his work, the way in which he performs and choreographs, is parallel to my own, the way in which you take a tradition – in my case it’s kathak, for him it’s flamenco – and you deconstruct it in order to create your own language, your own point of view,” noted Khan. The production, he added, is a study on words and music in the kathak and flamenco traditions and the way in which they share a kind of rhythmic complexity. On stage are six musicians, while another two performers, Khan and Galvan, use their bodies as instruments.
About 17 years ago, as a very promising young dancer, Khan presented his debut choreography at the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer on the South Bank in London, a performance billed as a “conversation” between him and choreographer-producer Farooq Chaudhry. A year later, he established the Akram Khan Company.
“The essence of my work remains the same,” said Khan when asked what had changed since then. “My desire to discover man through everything I do, telling human stories, remains the same. I enjoy narrating stories about people, myths and gods. In ‘Torobaka,’ the dialogue is developed through the various forms of music and dance, but the identity of my work hasn’t changed.”
For Khan, the most crucial aspect of his work remains the “point when inspiration happens,” a view he expressed in an interview with Kathimerini in 2006 on the occasion of a creative encounter with minimalist composer Steve Reich at the Athens Concert Hall. He still believes that to be the case: “When I feel very vulnerable, when I’m at the point of hitting rock bottom, that’s when I feel the power to improve things and find ways to express myself. This power, this motive is hope.”
Born in Wimbledon to a family from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Khan began his career on stage at the age of 13, with a part in Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata.” He studied contemporary dance at De Montfort University in Leicester and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, before working with Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. He has also worked with actress Juliette Binoche, star dancer Sylvie Guillem, choreographer-dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and singer Kylie Minogue, among others. Among his numerous awards is an Olivier for “Desh,” and the Distinguished Artist Award by the International Society for the Performing Arts.
Meanwhile, our conversation ended on a happy note, the upcoming collaboration between Khan and the Greek contemporary dance troupe Rootless Root during an improvisation week in London later in March.
“It’s great that dance here is addressed to all ages and levels; there are so many different types of dance,” he said on the subject of Britain having embraced contemporary dance over the last few years. “Dance is universal, it’s a human need, it’s a story found in each and every one of us.”
“Torobaka,” at the Onassis Cultural Center (107-109 Syngrou), to March 15. Shows start at 8.30 p.m. Prices for tickets range from to 15 to 36 euros (10 to 15 reduced, 5 euros for the unemployed). For more information, call 210.900.5800 or visit www.sgt.gr.