Very few classical Indian dancers consistently appear at the world’s top international arts festivals. Bangladesh-born UK dancer Akram Khan, is one of them. I was 18 when I first saw him dance. As an impressionable (and somewhat naive) student of dance, I adopted him very quickly as a role model. It is 2012 now, and Akram Khan once again appears at the forefront of the Melbourne International Arts Festival with his new production ‘Desh’.
A bald-headed lone dancer, Mr. Khan himself, opened the show. Unlike most of his previous festival productions, “Desh” was performed solo and Khan the only dancer.
This was an interesting choice for a big budget production which could certainly have afforded to tour a larger cast. Was the decision to go solo, perhaps a reference to Khan’s artistic roots in Kathak? The classical Indian dances were traditionally only ever intended to be performed in solo. Perhaps ‘Desh’ would be a story of Khan’s journey to re-discover his cultural home (desh) and his artistic roots? The program synopsis promised “Khan’s inimitable merging of traditional Indian kathak dance” with contemporary movement. Unfortunately the solo nature of the work was, in the end, the only true reference to Khan’s artistic roots in Kathak. The production was dominated by an even stronger contemporary style than ever, and a glitzy, big budget, techno-theatrical extravaganza which certainly had the audience dazzled.
This razzle-dazzle was the creation of a star-studded alliance of collaborators including Oscar-winning set designer Tim Yip (production designer for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Dance frequently receded to the background as other things came forward. Animations, scrim screen projection, complex set construction and high-tech stage mechanics often took centre stage. As things flew in and out and the lights danced more than Khan, the dancer’s movement was often dwarfed by this fantasy world of theatrical opulence.
Over the last decade I have felt a sense of loss in Khan’s work, as he appears to have progressively erased Kathak movements and aesthetic from his more popular work. He is a contemporary dancer, and we cannot expect traditionalism from him – however a strong traditional flavour is part of his promise to the world of art and what the festival circuit purports that he offers. I suspect that with increasing UK government funding and mainstream festival appearances, Khan’s work has been diluted from what was once a heavy Indian dance aesthetic to a more “neutral” contemporary dance style that is more palatable to the masses. Today his work is reminiscent of a British roast vegetable soup with a sprinkle of coriander on top just for that “exotic” touch.
When Khan did manage to dominate over the theatrics, his choreography and movement was precious and compelling. His symbiotic power and grace in movement was truly spell-bounding. I was left yearning for more of his dance, less of the pizzazz and even the briefest glimpse of his strong classical technique which was almost entirely absent.
Khan’s work is truly unique and entirely necessary in the international arts scene. The contemporisation of our art forms is of course an interesting experiment that must be continued. Desh, however, was a realisation for me. A realisation that the mainstream arts festival circuit is still not ready to bare witness to classical Indian dance in all its raw authenticity. Even today, it appears that for mass consumption, the traditional arts must be packaged in a contemporary dance language and delivered with theatrical extravagance.
To represent the traditional Indian arts in their authenticity may not be Khan’s project; instead, it may indeed be the project for a new and bold generation of young classical Indian dancers emerging in the west.
Akram Khan performed Desh at the Melbourne International Arts Festival 16 October – 21 October, 2012.