Before he could speak, he could dance. Akram Khan was 7 when he first strung together a sentence but by the age of 4, he was already doing 15-minute choreography. It was fortuitous: Khan, 49, is one of Britain’s most acclaimed dancers; his burgeoning fame as a storyteller cuts across geographical boundaries. Born in Wimbledon to Bangladeshi parents, Khan is a second-generation immigrant. His hybrid identity—he is both British and Bangladeshi and, tragically, neither—made him a foreigner in his own land.
As a child, Khan remembers feeling invisible amongst his peers and a misfit within the South Asian community. Unlike other Bangladeshi kids of his age, he did not get into a private school. Words intimidated him. Movement was his way of communicating and dance was his refuge. “Somehow people listened to me when I danced,” he said over a phone call. When in school, Khan had missed an entire year by sneaking into his garage and practising for hours.
But what proved life-altering was his involvement in English theatre director Peter Brook’s production of the Mahabharata. He and his sister were modelling for a children’s book when the illustrator referred him to Brook’s audition. He was 13 when he joined and 15 when it came to a close. So many years later, he maintains, it changed his life.
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Khan’s dance is a distinct blend of Kathak and contemporary movements. In 2000, he co-founded the Akram Khan Company with the dance producer Farooq Chaudhry. As the company grew, so did he. Since 2000, Khan’s oeuvre has been dotted with awards and accomplishments, culminating in a career highlight in 2012 when he choreographed and performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The kinetic verve in his art has only amplified with the collaborations he had over the years with artists from multiple disciplines like writer Hanif Kureishi, actor Juliette Binoche, musician Nitin Sawhney, ballerina Sylvie Guillem, sculptor Anish Kapoor, among others. These partnerships resulted in diverse work, but like all great artists, Khan used them as artistic vehicles to reiterate common questions regarding identity, the quest of belonging, the pathos of interstitial existences, and human beings’ relationship with the earth.
““The problem with modern civilisation is we are constantly looking forward. We have global dementia. We forget our past. Don’t do that.””
In Zero Degrees (performed 2005-2008), he teamed up with Belgian dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as both artists, born to Muslim families in Europe, created a transformative set. On the surface, it was autobiographical, relaying Khan’s own experience of coming to Bangladesh as a British citizen and reckoning with the fragility of identity. In Desh (premiered in 2011 and last performed in 2017 with the announcement that he would never perform it again), Khan examined his fraught relationship with Bangladesh, and as an extension with his father, using movement as a channel to reconcile with his complicated identity politics. The 80-minute solo performance concluded with Khan standing on his father’s grave. In reality, however, his father was alive at that time.
One of his more recent works, Creature was inspired by German playwright Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, in which he stresses on themes like exploitation and otherisation. The set was slated to run at London’s Sadler’s Wells in 2021 but with the pandemic shutting down productions, it was shot by Academy Award-winner Asif Kapadia as an independent work.
Now, Khan is ready to bow out. His set, Xenos, which premiered in 2018, marks his last solo performance. He has travelled with it for a while. Days before he performed it for the last time at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts on June 24 and 25, Khan spoke to Frontline about hanging up his boots, sustaining a relationship with dance, and reconciling with the hybridity of his identity. Excerpts:
Why did you choose Xenos as your last solo performance?
Xenos chose me. My body was changing and it was time for me to invest more in creating rather than in performing. There are artists who love to perform till later, but I am a year shy of 50. I train four hours a day, every day of the year, because I have to perform a show like Xenos. I want to reduce that to two hours. My retirement, though, has nothing to do with the context of the work. It just felt like the right time.
““We think we can put a flag in a country and claim it as our own. For me, that is arrogance of the highest regard.””
The word xenos is Greek for stranger. Your set is designed as a tribute to British and Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War. Your 2014 work Dust, a one-act ballet, focussed on the many ways women became the face of the workforce during that time. What draws you to war?
It is not so much war. From 2014 to 2018, several artists across the UK were commissioned to mark the centenary of the First World War and reflect on that period. The programme was called “14–18 NOW”. Dust was born there. During the research we realised that the strategies deployed during the five years before the war were almost parallel to the five years before the Second World War. What is interesting is that those patterns and symptoms are similar to what is happening now. I am not obsessed with war, but I want to use my position to give voice to those who have been forgotten. I was very moved reading articles by Indian writers about their grandparents who fought in the First World War; African writers who wrote that their parents fought in the war. I had not studied this in history, so I made it my mission to create a work that gives a voice to those 1.4 million colonial soldiers.
If probed deeper, and as hinted by the title, Xenos is also a critique of the suspicion we harbour against outsiders. Do you see it that way?
You are not wrong. That’s how we all feel right now—like a stranger. A stranger to the politics of the world and the country; a stranger to the politics of the people in power. The way we treated Brexit and the refugee crisis made me feel like a stranger in my own country.
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You are a 49-year-old man and a 49-year-old dancer. Does one impact the other?
No. There are great dancers and there are choreographers who are meant to be. Every dancer feels they are a choreographer. That’s the mistake people make. I am not a great dancer but I feel I am a choreographer. My heart lies in storytelling. People transition to choreography when they slow down as a performer. I always wanted to choreograph more than be on stage. I love being on stage but only for the moment I am on stage. I also love training in Indian classical dance.
The truth, though, is far more complex. I have done something all my life and now I am retiring in India. My last two shows come with huge emotional baggage. I didn’t want to stop learning with my body, so during the lockdown I started [learning] Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I am heavily into that. Nobody knows me there. I am rubbish at it. My advantage is I am athletic, disciplined and have immense focus and determination. I am never going to fight in a competition, that is not my aim. But at least I can continue to explore searching for ways of moving and expressing the body.
You inhabit a hybrid identity. Has dance helped you come to terms with it?
I don’t belong anywhere. I connect more with the tribal people. They are nomads. They travel constantly and never root themselves to one place. Their body is their only home. We think we can put a flag in a country and claim it as our own. For me, that is arrogance of the highest regard. I am a guest on the earth. And this is another problem: we feel we own the earth. We don’t. It has existed for millions of years before us and it will continue to do so even when the conditions will be unfeasible for us to exist. Dance helps me make sense of the complexities of how to navigate myself through this very complex, disturbing, and sometimes, occasionally, extremely beautiful world.
Your work draws from multiple disciplines. Zero Degrees, for instance, straddles the performativity of theatre and the rhythms of dance. Was this aesthetic a conscious approach to articulate your interstitial identity?
Yes. But it was subconscious. In my work, genres fold into one another. I grew up in London at a time when I was exposed to different kinds of art. My mother took me to watch them. It was never just dance. I went to see ballet with her, African dance, flamenco, music concerts, and theatre. She is very cultured. It felt natural to tell a story using different genres.
““I don’t belong anywhere. I connect more with the tribal people. They are nomads. They travel constantly and never root themselves to one place. Their body is their only home.””
Were you always exposed to art?
My parents came to the UK for a better life. My father arrived in 1969 and my mother witnessed the Liberation War (1971) and came here in 1973. Both of them had lost people, friends, and language. My body became the living museum. Folk dance and language were shoved down my sister’s and my throat. My mother and the aunties did not want their loss to disappear.
You are trained in Kathak, one of India’s oldest dance forms. Have you ever felt the responsibility of preserving it through your performances, given that you are also a documentarian of sorts for future generations?
I feel highly responsible for the young generation. I would guide them if they want to be guided, but I want them to turn back, that’s all. I don’t want them to look forward. The problem with modern civilisation is we are constantly looking forward. We have global dementia. We forget our past. Don’t do that. The body carries my ancestors and I feel responsible for it. I want the younger generation to look at their tradition, find mistakes, improve on them, and celebrate what needs to be celebrated. It is too easy to view things in binaries because we live in a social media-driven world.
- Akram Khan, 49, is one of Britain’s most acclaimed dancers; his burgeoning fame as a storyteller cuts across geographical boundaries
- Born in Wimbledon to Bangladeshi parents, Khan is a second-generation immigrant, and hybrid identities are one of the themes of his work
- He hung up his boots with a performance of his dance solo Xenos at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts on June 24 and 25, 2023
- Xenos explores the experience of the First World War from the point of view of a soldier from a colonised nation
Do you identify yourself as a conservationist?
No. I see myself as someone who questions the form, the tradition. I would love to say I am a conservationist. I train four hours a day but I don’t train for 10 hours. For me, Aditi Mangaldas is a really good classical dancer. Rajendra Gangani is someone who is immersed in dance. My personal favourites are Pandit Durga Lal, Nahid Siddiqui, and Kelucharan Mohapatra.
I am just pushing the form. But in order to bend the rules, you need to know the rules very well.
There seems to be a dichotomy here. You are a stickler for tradition, yet you feel flexible enough to bend the rules.
My mother is responsible for it. When I was a child, she told me the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac where the former agrees to sacrifice the latter, his son, in order to prove his devotion to God. I was traumatised. I remember asking my mother if she would do the same and she had replied, “No”. Several years passed. In 2013, I was invited to Paris to respond to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Even there, the central theme is sacrifice. I called up my mother and asked, “Do you remember you told me the story about Abraham and Isaac?” She said she did it to plant a seed of doubt. “Why?” I asked. “Because, beta, when you love something, you constantly question it. The moment you take it for granted, you risk not loving it any more, like a relationship.”
That seed of doubt has stayed with me. I have utter conviction in tradition and I have immense doubt.
After retiring, how do you intend to sustain your relationship with dance?
Dance is my therapy. I have so much rage. I had a very complicated relationship with my father. He was a difficult human being who could not express love. I think his father never showed him love. The pattern passed down generationally. I am consciously trying to change it with my son because I can sense so much of that in me.
Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer. Her work is situated at the juncture of gender and pop culture.