Akram Khan

31 March 2017

I had become obsessed, and if anything, that is my gift. I become obsessed with something, and then my whole world revolves around it.

Akram Khan is injured. The wear and tear of his daily training schedule has resulted in a torn meniscus. Despite his inability to dance, there is a feline elegance to his movements. We meet on a damp January morning in Kingston at his local dance studio. Weak winter light leaks through the large windows at the end of the room. He stands quietly, swathed in a large sweater and woollen beanie, watching his two young children Sayuri and Kenzo as they charge joyously around the empty space. He speaks with a soft south London accent. This is one of the most esteemed choreographers and performers in modern dance, with a legacy of achievements stretching back to featuring in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata at the age of 13, and yet, he is by his very presence, unassuming. Removed from his natural role at the centre of a production, he seems quite content to shift the focus to his young family, or his friend and colleague Yen-Ching Lin who is performing in his place today. The only active part of his body are his eyes. Piercing and hawk-like, they dart around the room, taking in the scratches on the floor, and the dashes and weaves of Lin’s improvised routine. When they catch you, you feel the presence of an intensely inquisitive individual.     

CEREAL: What is your first memory of dance?

AKRAM KHAN: I would be lying to you if I told you there was a specific, chronological moment, but the most salient has to be watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time. On that day something shifted in terms of what I wanted to do. Before that, I remember watching ballet, but falling asleep half way through.

CEREAL: Did dance become an activity that you were naturally drawn to after that?

AK: Well, I started dancing at three, but that was forced. I wasn’t a natural. My family pushed me into a traditional Bangladeshi folk dance class, and then Kathak much later, around the age of seven or eight.

CEREAL: Was yours a household of dance?

AK: It was a household of aunties who would come over every day and celebrate god knows what. The house was always full of music.

CEREAL: You grew up here in London. How has the city moulded your perspective?

AK: I was very aware, particularly through my teenage years, of my colour. It depended on what scenario I was put in; in the playground, I was a brown kid, in dance classes, I was a Kathak dancer, and in Bangladesh, I was a foreigner. Morden, where I grew up, was on the front lines of the fight against the BNP (British National Party). We dealt with a lot of racism, so dance was a form of escape. We had Asians, Blacks, Whites, all unified by this one activity. And of course, our love of Michael Jackson. There was a period when I was always scratching my skin, my parents thought I had an ailment, like eczema or something, but one day, my mum asked me: “Why do you keep scratching yourself?” and I replied, “Because I want to see if it is white underneath.” Up to that point all my superheroes had been white; Superman, Spiderman … It was only after I saw Michael Jackson that I stopped scratching myself.

CEREAL: How much of the current political upheaval influences your work?

AK: I don’t think it necessarily finds its way into my work, it more forces its way in. It’s going to affect all of us, hugely. It’s not just about race, it’s about human beings. I am part of a generation that people think hasn’t suffered. We are seen to have grown up in a comfortable social environment. My parents had to fight for something – they fought for Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. Our concept of freedom, meanwhile, has not been fought for. Most of us grew up in a house with food on the table. What is currently happening will wake us up. It’s scary times. The system of inequality we are currently living in cannot last long.

CEREAL: Is there a way that you channel your dance towards a political or social goal?

AK: I think my work has always been political on a general level.

CEREAL: Have you always known dance would be the focus of your career?

AK: No, I wasn’t one of those fortunate people who always knew what they wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be like Michael Jackson, but at some stage, you let go of your idols and realise that dance, no matter what you do, is fucking hard. You have to train your arse off. You have to sacrifice. I went on tour with Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata, and when I came back, I couldn’t adjust to normal life. I had been living a gypsy king, surrounded by the world’s best actors, travelling the globe. I was a 13 year old boy when I left, and when I came back at the age of 15 and suddenly had to do O-levels, that shift was extremely difficult. With my parent’s encouragement I went back to Kathak and I enjoyed it, but that was because I didn’t like normal life. Something happened then that finally shifted everything towards dance as a profession for me. Towards the end of my school career, my parents went to the end of term parents’ evening, but my name wasn’t called out on the register. When they asked why, my teacher looked puzzled and said that I hadn’t been into class for a year. They were obviously shocked, because I had been leaving in school uniform every morning, and coming back home in school uniform every evening. They sat me down and asked me where I had been going for the last year. I led to them to the garage in the backyard. Every morning I had been leaving the house, climbing over the fence and staying there for 10 hours. “What were you doing?” they asked. I replied, “I’ve been training.” I had become obsessed, and if anything, that is my gift. I become obsessed with something, and then my whole world revolves around it.

CEREAL: What happened next?

AK: They said: “OK, take it up seriously, then. But you have to do a degree in it.” My community is incredibly oriented around academia. My mother’s father is an amazing mathematician, so there was a certain academic rigour running through my family. This was quite influential on my practice as it led me to start codifying everything from a young age. Everyone believed (incorrectly) that I had inherited his genius. I developed a system when someone was walking past. I would register their voice, the colour of their eyes, the colour of their hair, and the rhythm of their walk. I became interested in physical patterns. After school I went to a university 160 km away from that community and finally found my voice. I was finally autonomous, and with the classical training that I had, where you never question authority, I realised that modern dance provided me with certain freedoms. I began to find answers to the questions that had been dogging me for much of my early life.

CEREAL: How did you develop in that new environment?

AK: The physical demands certainly changed me. In my mind, dance sits somewhere between athletics and art. It’s not just about physical capabilities, you’ve got to have technique, you have to be poetic. You have to be violent and aggressive, you’ve got to be able to tell a story. Athletes and artists are constantly at the edge, and that is where life exists. Everything other than that is just pretending to live. So I felt enlivened.

CEREAL: You make a lot of your work through collaboration. What attracts you to working with people from different fields?

AK: I love it. I only collaborate with people who I think are better than me, because it forces me out of my comfort zone. I like to collaborate with artists from different genres. A visual artist will consider shape and form. A composer will listen to sounds and how an object vibrates. As a choreographer, I look for visible patterns. In the end, we are all searching for stories, so collaborations allow me to collect different perspectives on the same story. I have an exciting new project which will focus almost entirely on bringing together different minds on the salient topics that currently affect society. Our gift is our ability to exchange information, and collaboration is about exchange, and with exchange we learn. The problems come when we start building walls, we stop learning. And in view of that, I’m terrified.

CEREAL: How emotionally driven is choreography for you?

AK: I like to move people. I like to be moved. You can be moved emotionally and intellectually through dance.

CEREAL: What moves you?

AK: Truth! The surprise, the shock that things can still be beautiful, particularly in the world we currently live in. I think that is also the notion of hope. A director recently wrote to me and said, ‘I feel at this moment we have lost hope as a civilisation.’ So, I replied, ‘Let’s make hope then. Let’s do what we do with dance, film, music, media, and let’s make art. Let’s create hope again.’ When you feel empathy, or when you feel connected, I think that is one avenue towards hope. The simplicity of engaging with live dance strips away all of the complexities of life, and for a few hours, you can focus on emotion in a very pure form.