writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

An Unsettling Journey

Akram Kahn Company
New York, New York
October 14-19, 2003

By Susan Reiter
Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter

Having been unaware of Akram Khan, whose reputation has apparently been growing in dance circles for some time, before this past summer when his company performed at Jacob's Pillow, and having only the most superficial knowledge of the subtleties and complexities of Kathak, the Northern Indian classical dance tradition that Khan studied intensively and integrates into his choreography, I entered the theater for his company's New York debut at the Joyce theater feeling at a disadvantage.

A London-based choreographer born in England of Bangladeshi parentage, Khan brought his 2002 hour-long work Kaash, which is performed by his five-member company. While perhaps missing some of its implications and associations—the way it invokes the Hindu God Shiva, for example—I was struck by the authority and sense of visual presentation this young (29) choreographer displays. This is a serious, disciplined choreographer, one who knows how not to over-extend his material. At a time when so much work is over-amplified and shapeless, Khan's highly developed sense of craftsmanship and command of the overall stage picture is impressive.

Dark and somber in its overall look—the dancers (with Khan, a compact, electrically charged performer among them) wear elegantly cut black tunics over pants—Kaash is an exceptionally seamless and striking collaboration. Sculptor Anish Kapoor's set design—artfully enhanced and varied by Aideen Malone's lighting—turns the backdrop into a soft-edged, shifting field dominated by a black rectangle. Here is something unsettling about the way it remains slightly undefined and suggests a void. The score, primarily by Nitin Sawhney, supplemented by John Oswald's "Spectre" (performed by Kronos Quartet), includes extended passages of fierce drumming, intricate rhythms that propel the dancers into harshly aggressive traversals of the stage. It also features the highly rapid and rhythmic staccato vocalizing associated with Kathak, as well as quieter portions when the sound is primarily that of whispering.

Before Kaash officially begins, the curtain is up and Inn Pang Ooi, a lean, tall dancer, is standing onstage, his back to us, as though contemplating that rectangle. He remains motionless for quite a while after it does get underway, sweep onto the stage from the wings, a fierce tight formation. Much of their upper body movements —intricate, at times hyper-extended arm positions, delicately shaped hand mudras —evoke Indian dancing, as do the sideways lunges they sink into at times, but their swift, aggressive conquest of space is highly contemporary.

Their control is remarkable. Whether slashing their limbs swiftly through space or engaging in quieter, more meditative encounters, they radiate a centered quality. In their most intense moments, they suggest a tribe of ancient hunters, stalking their prey, or the embodiment of some demonic force. Khan's choreography puts them—and, by extension, us—in touch with something elemental. It connects with its audience on a sensual as well as intellectual level, thanks to the rigor and honesty it conveys.

In the final moments of Kaash, Inn Pang Ooi once again becomes a solitary figure, separating himself from the rest, who have formed a horizontal line across the stage, their backs to us. One by one they whirl their way offstage, leaving him slowly swaying, his arms extended, as the lights fade. The implication that Kaash has been his journey, and has come full circle, is somewhat surprising. Certainly this intricate, challenging work deserves more than one viewing.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 20, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 20, 2003