Akram Khan Breaks Barriers

The curtain rises. We are at the prestigious Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. A still silence befalls. Anticipation sitting in the wings takes flight. The stage is dressed in black dark but for the silhouetted features of the musicians and their instruments. The sounds of the tanpura slowly fills the auditorium and the dim lights move joined by the sonorous base notes of the cello and the sounds of the sarod burst into Raag Yaman. The dancer centre stage slowly comes to life. The melodious raag seductively caresses the dancer’s feet. His hands and body move in harmony.

The dancer begins his story. He is Shiva, Nataraj, the Lord of Dance. The solemn sounds burst into a powerful chant on Shiva in a sonorous chorus of “Shiv Jay Jay Jay”. The music, the rhythm and the dancer’s feet gain tempo, energy and strength. The audience is entranced with the dancer’s agility. The dancer is none other than, a UK based Bangla Deshi, born a Muslim, taught by a Hindu Guru, dancing to the Hindu Chants of Shiva in Sydney. The all powerful Shiva and compassionate Shakti take turns, twists and finish into a fast paced melting rhythm. Akram Khan, the kathak dancer is accompanied on the tabla by Sanju Sahai from India and Faheem Mazhar on vocals. The two also lend their majestic male voices to the chorus of the Shiva chant.

The sarod played by none other than Soumik Datta and the cello in the hands of Lucy Railton, not to mention, the subtle touches from the Japanese drummer Yoshie Sunahata each bring out the emotions personality and strength from Shiva to Allah with abject ease. Shiva leaves to be replaced by a Khan who sits kneeling as one would in front of His Durgah and the singer bursts into a song in praise of Allah. The theme extends and enfolds the audience into its arms of beauty.

What follows later is the tharana, a fast paced song that contains the notes of the tabla sounds for its lyrics. Akram Khan stops to recite the ‘rhythmic pattern also called the Toda’ before his entire body in mind and soul replicate what he has just recited, aptly accompanied by Sanju Sahai on the tabla this culminates in a chakradhaar, a complicated rhythmic pattern that is repeated three times. The dance called Poloroid Feet was choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi.

The dancer disappears and what follows takes the audience by surprise as the rhythmic show continues in time with a rhetoric explosive presentation between the tabla and the Japanese Drummer Yoshie Sunahata. Enter Yoshie, Akram describes her in an introduction later as a Japanese drummer with a soul. He says he heard her in a Japanese festival of drummers and found her countenance of containment and discipline impressive so he chose her for an important role in his next production. What that role was, was perhaps the best kept secret of the show.

After the break a breathless and excited audience came back to see his contemporary work with Gnosis the story of the blindfolded Gandhari the mother of the Kauravas whose love for her cruel son Dhuryodhana tears her apart. Played by Akram Khan, the child is no longer a child nor is he the man he should have been. To the blind gandhari he turns into a sight that befits a demon, and so struck by this realisation, we see Gandhari succumb and double up in pain at her helplessness to contain her wild son. Gandhari is danced by none other than Yoshie Sunahata.

An age old theme clothed and presented in the most structurally beautiful way. Akram Khan uses the method of powerful oral expression with just one phrase “Suun Meri Ma Suun” “Listen my mother Listen” to take the story forward where once the son was able to be cajoled and advised, the son soon moves to become the dominating egoistic man to the demon overtaken by fury and greed. The partnership swings into one where Gandhari loses and the son wins.

This sad tale whilst may have appeared confusing to a western audience managed to still portray the intensity of the relationship between the mother and child. A compelling performance, the music was Akram Khan says in an after show talk, chosen after listening to different types of music from pop to classical to create the dramatic effects he wanted to achieve. In choreographing Gnosis he told the audience that he initially thought about playing the part of Gandhari himself but after meeting Yoshie he worked hard at convincing her to dance this part.

He coached and trained her while choreographing what he had to do at the same time. Yoshie was indeed excellent as the Mother who so rapt in her love for her son, fails to change his mind and stop him from banishing the Pandavas. In one swift movement we see Akram place his feet on the middle of Gandhari while she lies sprawled in her blindness weighed by his dominance on the ground. If the body could speak a language, of love, of despair, of anger of fury of greed of self obsessed devilish Dhuryodana, one could see that in Akram Khan’s choreography. Clad in a simple black attire, both Akram and Yoshie broke cultural barriers and captured the essence of the relationship between Gandhari and Dhuryodhana.

In a novel approach to a cross cultural production such as Gnosis, Opera House decision to have a Q&A after the show was a welcome feature. In this session Akram explained kathak as an artform a culmination of both Hinduism and Islam, that he is a muslim artist who has a Hindu Guru, and that concert pieces often have items that reflect aspects of both religion. When asked whether he had ever considered working with flamenco dancers, Akram Khan said “Frankly they scare me”. His open approach to the questions was refreshing and his clear English accent saw him sit in well with the audience. On whether he enjoyed working with artists such as Kylie Minogue, Akram said that as an individual it was wonderful to work for Kylie whom he admired from afar just as he felt about Juliette Binoche. Akram Khan on artist tantrums said every artist’s challenge is in deciding which part of themselves they would like the world to see. The Artist, the Human or the Star. Akram Khan the artist was entrancing, the human was touching and the star was resounding. Just as we left the hall we saw Akram Khan’s proud parents, Mr and Mrs Musharraf Khan. This mother, unlike Gandhari, was a proud mother who saw her son tell his story of Dance from the East to the West and break all barriers. As I walked down the majestic steps of the Opera House, I thought if there were a question as to what was superior, religion or art ? The answer tilted in favour of Art today.

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