What stood out was Akram Khan’s commitment to tradition while developing modern works.

Internationally acclaimed dancer-choreographer-director Akram Khan held the Chennai audience in thrall with his surcharged dancing on Monday last. The sum of his creativity came across like the metamorphosing aspects of one poem rippling into many melodies. He is touring six cities in India and The Akram Khan Company is presented by the British Council as part of The Park’s New Festival and the opening showcase of the Council’s Impulse festival in partnership with GREAT and Prakriti Foundation.

Born in London into a family of Bangladeshi origin, Akram Khan’s classical tutelage was under the distinguished Kathak teacher and dancer Pratap Pawar, from the age of seven. He completed his graduation in contemporary dance and later worked on The X-Group project with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Brussels.

Khan presented his first solo works in the late 1990s and is the recipient of several honours and awards such as the order of the MBE for his service to dance and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Dance Production (2012 Desh), to name a few. Akram Khan and Farooq Choudhary, producer of the company, will also deliver talks on choreographic processes and the business of dance.

Hard pressed for time, Akram Khan managed to speak to this writer about his thoughts on dance, creative techniques and some of his future plans.

Given his earlier background of working, as a teenager, in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata one can understand his familiarity with the subject. But why did he choose Gandhari as the theme for ‘Gnosis?’

“I saw that so many of The Mahabharata heroes are male and the female character of Gandhari, who played a powerful role, fascinated me. ‘Gnosis’ is the inner struggle of Gandhari as the queen who is aware of her duty pitted against the mother’s supreme love for the son.”

How does he go about choreographing his works? “The first stage is my research of the idea which takes up to one year. The second is arranging the music - that is the movement in music and creating scenes and the third is where I put the scenes together in dance. ‘Gnosis’ took about a year to complete.”

Akram Khan’s commitment to tradition while developing modern works could be discerned from the programme card. The evening featured sections from his earlier Kathak works (one of which was choreographed by his guru) and an interactive session with the outstanding musicians on stage as the first part. The second unit was the presentation of his creation, ‘Gnosis,’ an award winning work put forth as a duet with the noted Taiwanese guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu.

Pulsating footwork

Khan’s stylised Kathak incorporated the logic of the repertoire associated with the classical theme. An evocative prayer to Siva as the preliminary piece and homage to Allah as the next item were followed by pulsating footwork. The fascinating patterns that tied up this portion were set in (Khan’s words) “teen tal in a tempo just a little over madhyakal.” The sound of ghungroos for this piece reminded one of a shower of rain that quietens to a drizzle before it halts.

‘Gnosis’ implies knowledge of spiritual matters or mystical knowledge, the aspects explored in the production related to light and darkness. Khan had combined his classical Indian and contemporary dance roots to present “the story of Gandhari who chooses to blindfold herself in empathy with her husband” and the turbulent manoeuvrings of Duryodhana formed the ingredient for analysing these questions.

The unfolding of ‘Gnosis’ began with the luminous placing of Fang-Yi Sheu’s movements that cleaved and curved in space. This section as Khan explained, “was first choreographed with a Japanese dancer.” In this piece Khan took up shifting stances literally and figuratively as the exchanging roles of the mother and the son. The production progressed to a finale of destruction compellingly shown as paroxysmal judders by Khan.

While the external details of the choreography revealed themselves in the multiple displays of vitality, soft moves, vaults, and the weaving of ‘chakkars’ as whirls, the creative instinct that brought these together elevated the viewer’s experience. The placement of the musicians around the performing space integrated their efforts with the dancing.

Sanju Sahai’s amazing tabla repartees meshed with those of percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger, whom Khan described as “someone with the sensibility of a North Indian and the mathematics of a South Indian!” Where Kartik Raghunathan’s violin essays lent their particular sensitive hue, Lucy Railton’s cello performance moved in time with the dance as a resonant presence. Vocalist Kaushik gave form to the lyrics for the evening.

The standing ovation from the connoisseurs apart, the impact of ‘Gnosis’ was such that it stirred more stories. It could be the overtly stated story of Gandhari or it could well be the universal battle for dominance, annihilation and non-existence or, deducing from the searching hands and the guiding stick of dancer Fang-Yi Sheu, pursuit of the unseen.

After the performance, Khan had this to say of the Chennai audience: “I did not expect this kindness and generosity from this audience. I was a little surprised too because Chennai sees so much of the classical. Naturally the warmth from the people moved me.”

His future plans?

“I am choreographing dance for an international feature film from Iran. This is a very disturbing true story of a young man who in the political context of Iran learnt dance at great risk. In addition, I am also creating dance for Stravinsky’s music for my own dance company.”