We are a stolen generation, not belonging to the East or the West, says British-born Bangladeshi dancer-choreographer Akram Khan

“I don’t work within a classical tradition. I work in the contemporary space but borrow a lot from Kathak,” says British-born Bangladeshi dancer/choreographer Akram Khan. His powerful works, drawn from twin heritages, have won Khan critical and popular acclaim. It is quite an extraordinary coalescing of multiple lineages — the traditional, the improvisational, and the personal — on a contemporary stage that the audience at Khan’s recent performances —presented by the British Council as part of The Park’s New Festival — experienced.

Khan began dancing at age seven, and learnt Kathak under Sri Pratap Pawar. Acquiring the two-fold pedigree of Kathak and the contemporary was not a strategic decision. He says: “I didn’t even know what ‘contemporary dance’ meant. Essentially when I joined the dance course at Leicester’s De Montfort University, I was running away from London, the pressure from my parents to be a doctor, engineer or whatever.”

Eventually Khan joined the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, presented his first solo works in the late 1990s and, in 2000, launched the Akram Khan Dance Company, with producer Farooq Chaudhry. By the time he came to the X Group project run by the legendary Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Brussels, “I had been working in the field of contemporary dance for a while. Later, he was Choreographer-in-Residence and Associate Artist at the”Southbank Centre London; currently he is an Associate Artist of MC2: Grenobleand Sadler's Wells, London.

Apart from award-winning ensemble works such as Vertical Road (2010), Khan has also evolved a signature style of developing duets with creative people from multiple fields including In-I (2008) with Oscar-winning actor JulietteBinoche, Sacred Monsters (2006) with celebrated ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem and Gnosis with Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu, which headlined Khan’s current tour.

Gnosis is a haunting, intense interpretation of the relationship between Gandhari and Duryodhana. “Since I was14 — when I took part in Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata — I have wanted to work with Gandhari. It occurred to me that the female characters in the Mahabharata — Kunti, Amba, Gandhari — are far less celebrated; they are always in the background.”

But Gnosis is, in many ways, an exception because “the ‘narrative’ in my work is usually devised, it comes out of the process.” The original idea for a piece is like a perfect image in his mind — and reality can never compare. “So when the process starts, I let go, I allow the initial image to mutate into something else.”

With the acclaimed Desh (2011), Khan’s first full-length contemporary solo, for example, “we collected stories about the politics, culture and history of Bangladesh for over a year. When we went into the studio, initially, the piece seemed to be about the relationship with my mother, but three-quarters of the way into the process, it became about my father. For me, process dictates the story. Story-telling is why I enjoy dance; apart from the sheer sense of energy. We are all storytellers, we learn, we extend, we move forward.”

But it’s not just “narrative”; Khan is unafraid to evoke the emotional and the spiritual in the contemporary space. He explains: “When you try to extract and abstract an emotion out of a human body; that is an emotion in itself. When people say boredom is nothingness, I disagree; boredom is a state of being. When Merce Cunningham asks his dancers to have “no emotions” that is an emotional state. There is no such thing as existing in the absence of some emotional state; as a human being you are always in transition from one state to another.”

And as a dancer, in transition between works, performances, countries, Khan’s tour marks a return to India after a gap of over a decade. He shares his excitement over the potential give and take of this re-engagement. “Actually I didn’t know what to expect, especially with the more classical work; I was afraid of the backlash because what I dance is not ‘pure’ Kathak. So I was totally surprised by the warmth of the audiences.”

Still, when he visits India or Bangladesh, “I feel like an outsider. We are a stolen generation, not belonging to the East or the West; connected to both, yet neither is home.” As a result, “My home is my body. It reacts, evolves, alters, but deep inside my body does not change; it is a consistent element.”

Khan believes that dance happens when the body is engaged in doing, rather than the over-analysis of what needs to be done. “I get frustrated when dancers talk too much, when they analyse before they do. I tell the dancers: stop talking, just dance.”

In this context, “The process of working with Juliette (Binoche) was very challenging. As an actor, she worked from the inside out but, as a dancer, I needed to work from the outside in. I wanted to prepare the soil before putting in the seed but she was interested in the seed without the soil.”

Recently Khan has been in the news for his work on Danny Boyles’ Isles of Wonder at the London 2012 Olympics. Working with Boyle, says Khan, was “extraordinary fun. He is a human being before he is a director, and he understands the process of collaboration. Though it was a ‘commissioned’ piece; in the end it turned out as ‘collaboration’. For me, true innovation comes from collaboration.”

Most challenging was the concept of scale. “It’s an opportunity that perhaps comes once in a lifetime, if at all; no theatre in the world can ever match that scale. I was choreographing for two extreme and extremely different formats at the same time. I had to tweak things in terms of making it reach the back row of the live audience of 80,000. At the same time Danny would remind me, ‘don’t forget the camera’, and the audience of one-and-a-half billion who were also watching. In live performance you can stand still for a whole minute and get away with it; but a few seconds is a lifetime on film. I had to make each second count, it was the most strategic I’ve had to be.”

Boyle apparently gave him a single word brief: “mortality”; a theme explored in Khan’s Vertical Road. “I have always been fascinated with concepts of life and death. Death is terrifying as the only true constant. We have our ideas and hopes about it, but no-one who’s gone there, has come back to tell us about it. Death is a mystery, but so is the stage because there is always the unknown factor of the audience. As Sylvie (Guillem) would say, the stage is sacred because it is like a temple, but also a monster because we aren’t in control of it.”

Perhaps the real power of Khan’s choreographic intent and mastery of movement lies in this: our experience, through his works, of the sacred monster — whether that is the performative stage or the larger arena where we perform our own individual lives.