The soul of dance stripped down

The performance begins with a stark, silent scene. Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, two «sacred monsters» of modern dance, stare at the audience in silence. They have returned to their childhood years. Guillem plays with a jump rope and Khan learns his first dance steps. They each, in turn, reveal something of themselves in solo dances, contemplation on the technique in which each has been trained – she in classical ballet and he in the Indian kathak and modern dance. They don’t pretend to be anything but completely incompatible. When he twirls around her at an irritating speed, she leads him into a corner and when he tries to manipulate her limbs as if she were a doll, she escapes his grip with a burst of pirouettes. As they dance, they exchange secrets: Guillem confesses her fear of insignificance and Kahn his fear of baldness. Their idioms gradually merge into one. Guillem, legs wrapped around Khan’s torso, hangs from him, becoming a part of him as they perform a ritualistic duet, using only their hands and their torsos. «Sacred Monsters,» which premiered in London in September 2006, has been one of the most lauded dance performances in Europe this past year, as it brought together the legendary ballerina with the acclaimed modern dance choreographer. Now the performance is coming to Athens, presented by the Athens Festival at the Herod Atticus Theater tonight and tomorrow. Khan is the choreographer and artistic director of the production and a few days prior to his arrival in the Greek capital, he spoke to Kathimerini about the performance. Tell us a few words about «Sacred Monsters.» The performance is based on our shared and individual experiences in classical dance. «Sacred Monsters» is a meditation on the journey from classical to modern dance. How are those two worlds connected? They are connected in a way that cannot really be described because it is so organic, just like the differences between them, the contrasts. These are what stir one’s curiosity, what make one want to experiment. The body has the ability to absorb these changes, this transition from one world into another. For example, I studied classical Indian dances and later moved into modern dance but this does not mean that I forgot what I had learned. The body must suddenly face something very alien to it and this is when you start coming up with ways to combine the contrasts. The body is a brain. Why did you chose this title for the production? The title was the idea of Guy Cools, my dramaturgist. It was destined for another project but I liked it because it was very well suited to this performance. In French «Monstres sacres» was a titled originally bestowed upon Sarah Bernhardt and later used as a distinction for great artists. It was used because the public and critics saw them as some kind of sacred beings. But there is another side to the coin: If these same artists change as people or turn artistically in a different direction, the result can be monstrous. People will begin casting them in a negative light, as was the case with Sylvie Guillem. When she became involved in modern dance, it was a very controversial move. The same happened with me. When I moved from classical Indian dance to modern, they threw me out. In what way? They no longer accepted me. They saw me as a traitor. Does this conflict between classical and modern dance persist in this day and age? I think that this negative energy between classical and modern dance will always exist, to a greater or lesser degree. It is a lot like religion. People choose to focus on the differences and not to see that both are saying the same thing in different terms. How would you define your collaboration with Sylvie Guillem? Sylvie Guillem is, to put it simply, an exceptional dancer. She is, above all else, an artist. To me, an artist is someone who operates artistically under any given circumstance. Sylvie has an unbelievable imagination and is also incredibly sensitive. Our rehearsals in the studio were a wonderful experience – sharing and learning from one another. How did the collaboration come about? She had seen me dance and, naturally, I had seen her. We were both eager to work together. In our first days of rehearsals, I made a video in which she spoke to me as if in an interview. I wanted to capture some of the stories we would use in the performance. We spent a lot of time together, sharing our dance experiences. Last year we had the pleasure of seeing Sylvie Guillem at the Herod Atticus with another great choreographer, Russell Maliphant. Do the performances have anything in common? You will see something very different. Russell’s work is very clean, transparent. What you will see in «Sacred Monsters» reveals things about myself and Sylvie on a very personal level. It is a very humanistic performance. As in all my other work, I always seek out that human element.