Akram Khan Company in Kaash Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan Company in Kaash
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Meany Theater, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
November 14, 2015

Dina McDermott

What do film actress Juliette Binoche, the London 2012 Olympic Games and Giselle have in common? Answer: they are all part of the artistic orbit of Akram Khan. Trained as a child in kathak, Khan encountered contemporary dance as a teenager at The Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. After founding his company in 2000, Khan rocketed to international notice, especially through a number of international collaborations, including with Binoche in In-I in 2008. Recently he has worked successfully with English National Ballet, and is to create an updated Giselle for their 2016-7 season.

For his own company, Khan’s style combines contemporary dance and kathak. He says he does not see his style “as a fusion, but a confusion”, a platform to ask questions, rather than providing pat answers.

Kaash, premiered in 2002 and the first full-length work by Khan for his company is described as a reflection on Hindu gods, black holes, Indian time cycles, tablas, creation and destruction. For this, his first visit to the Pacific Northwest, there was a heightened sense of expectation in the audience.

The piece opens with house lights on. Tall, lanky and bare-chested, Sung Hoon Kim walks onstage and faces upstage, contemplating the huge painting of set designer Anish Kapoor, hung on the backdrop. He stands there for about five minutes, inviting us to ponder what the painting represents. A black hole, nothingness, creation, a higher power, infinity? Reminiscent of color field paintings, it is black and surrounded by a gray aura. Through the course of the piece, it seems to change color, sometimes looking like a window, a black hole or vortex. At times it seems to change dimension or pulsate.

Kaash Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

When the other four dancers appear, and to the pounding, propulsive score of Nitin Sawheny, they launch into a fierce, feverish dance; arms slashing, cutting through the air, legs lunging sideways. Their hand gestures reflect the mudras of kathak dance, but the lightning fast changes of level and swoops to the floor harken more to the contemporary lexicon of Martha Graham.

After an increasingly frenetic, breathless twenty minutes, the dance dissolves into a slow, meditative solo for Kim. He is drawn into a duet with a woman who seems possessed or troubled. They dance as equals, leaning on and supporting each other in a non-hierarchical exchange of weight. More group passages continue in a ritualistic fashion, with quick yet precise movement, linear long phrases, and moments of stillness, accompanied by a score that features whispery voices and driving kathak rhythms. There is not much aerial movement or partnering in a traditional sense, the emphasis is on groundedness, fast changes of direction and focus.

The dancers are just bionic; I can’t remember when I’ve seen performers move this fast. I felt that if I blinked, I would miss twenty movements. Was it Martha Graham who called dancers “acrobats of God”? Khan’s company seemed to fulfill this prophesy – one second in a spinning frenzy, one minute sitting primly on the floor with one leg extended, the next catapulting into a dizzying chain of turns and minute gestures.

Slowly, the music becomes deafeningly loud. This is when the backdrop appeared to pulsate; an odd aural and visual illusion. It looks over them ominously, a force to be contended with. At the end, the dancers return to their original, perpendicular line with more slashing, pulling and choppy arms. They had triumphed over some apocalyptic event.

I see Kaash as a ritual of the life cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. These demi-gods of dancers toil through their ritual in a circle which continues on and on, reflecting cosmology as old as the Bible or the Mahabharata. While one magical, mysterious or cataclysmic narrative is ending, another one is waiting to begin.