When Akram Khan lists the countries on his company’s touring schedule, it sounds like a ’round-the-world ticket: Oman, Australia, China, Colombia, Syria, and Hungary. The eight dancers in his new piece, bahok, hail from China, Spain, Slovakia, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa. When they began the process of creating the work, the choreographer and his dancers didn’t even share a common language.
Born in London to Bengali parents, Khan is familiar with cross-cultural exchanges: He knows both the richness and the challenges of international identity. He trained in traditional Indian kathak dance before going on to study contemporary dance in his twenties. Today, he’s one of Britain’s star choreographers and a regular collaborator with musicians, actors, and visual artists of international acclaim. This Tuesday, February 16, the Akram Khan Dance Company visits Santa Barbara for the first time with bahok, an evening-length work that explores issues of national identity and the ways in which the body carries our history, as well as our sense of home. Khan spoke to me by phone from Dresden, Germany, while on tour with the company.
In creating bahok, you’ve worked with three dancers from the National Ballet of China. In what ways were the Chinese dancers’ expectations or training different from your other dancers? It’s not just that we were working with cultural differences; it’s also the fact that they were from a ballet background. That’s a world apart in terms of the way they approach the work. When I create work, the dancers are all authors in their own right, and I am working more as a director taking the scripts they have written and putting them together. So I had to give more guidance to the Chinese dancers. Once they felt liberated, that was wonderful.
Language was an issue for sure, but we had our tour manager translating for us. It’s interesting with dance, because once the groundwork is done through verbal communication, the rest of the creation is not verbal. It’s not taught orally. So despite the language barrier, we could start to relate to one another.
How would you describe the relationship between contemporary and kathak dance? Kathak is a north Indian classical dance form. It’s very much about conveying stories, particularly from Hindu mythology. It also has Islamic influences because of the Mongols invading India and adopting kathak into their courts. What I love about kathak is that it has two different compartments. One part is very mathematical and rhythmic, physical. The other part is sophisticated in telling stories through gestures, the face, and mime.
What’s interesting is that it’s very pedestrian in its way. The masters developed a lot of kathak from what they saw in public life. In that sense, it has a close connection with the roots of contemporary dance: Contemporary dance was about rebelling—rebelling against classicism, emphasizing the individual voice. It also took a lot of inspiration from its immediate surroundings rather than from books or teachers.
Bahok means “to carry” in Bengali—can you explain the significance of that word to you? In several interviews people asked me where my home is because I travel so much, and I said, “My home is my body.” For me, the body is the carrier of traditions, culture, religion, and education. Your body carries everything with it, and it evolves. The body carries diseases, memories. Your whole life you are given one body, and you have no choice—you grow old and die with that body.
The Akram Khan Dance Company will perform bahok at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, February 16, at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.