Global hit – Akram Khan

The World
The World

Modern dance choreographer Akram Khan grew up in London. His parents, though, were from Bangladesh — and they kept Khan in touch with their home country’s language and traditions. So Khan is used to living in different cultures at the same time. That’s something more and more people are doing these days. Khan’s latest work focuses on the meaning of “home” in a globalized world. The new performance premiered recently in China — and will travel to the United States in the spring. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad caught up with the British choreographer in Beijing.

The opening moments of Akram Khan’s new work, Bahok, are of a confused young woman, hunched on a chair, half in shadow. In search of herself.

The scene is a place of transit – an airport terminal, or a train station. Others sit on chairs, or pace, or watch the board overhead.

The letters flip every few minutes, from “Please Wait” to “Rescheduled.” The dancer’s movements, and the music, get agitated. Eventually, the letters flip to read “Cancelled.” A dancer, waiting with her old-fashioned suitcase, looks up in despair, and keels over sideways onto the ground. The letters on the board flip again, and spell out, a four-letter word, starting with S.

There are moments of sly humor like this throughout “Bahok.” The word “Bahok” itself means ‘carrier’ – and the dance explores how we all are carriers, of our belongings, our origins, our ideas and prejudices, our identity:

KHAN: “The body is absorbing and the mind is absorbing the culture, the smells, the religion, even politically. And so – the body is an identity in itself. It has its own opinion.”

That’s choreographer Akram Khan. The idea for the dance “Bahok” came when he agreed to collaborate with dancers from the National Ballet of China. Three of them came to London, to work with Spanish, South African, Indian and Korean dancers from Khan’s own company. Almost immediately, the Chinese dancers began missing home – and the dance became about the meaning of home. The Spanish dancer, Lali Ayguade, plays the confused woman at the beginning of the piece:

AYGUADE: “The question is what’s home for you, and within this, you can feel away from home, or you can feel you don’t have a home, or you are searching for a home. Inside this subject, there are many things.”

Including the home away from home you create, in a community of strangers – to get through a crisis or to relieve boredom.

In this scene in Bahok, the chairs are rearranged to look like everyone’s on a plane. One woman is listening to her i-Pod and singing out loud:

Another passenger tries to get her to shut up. Instead, the woman with the i-Pod draws that passenger, and others, into performing themselves. The other passenger – one of the Chinese ballerinas – does a graceful ballet solo, and pulls the Indian modern dancer up to be her partner. Chinese ballerina Meng Ning Ning says she’s enjoying this chance to work with dancers from different cultures and disciplines.

MENG: “It’s good fun. We communicate both through language and through our bodies.”

Both she and her colleague from the National Ballet of China, Zhang Jian Xin, say it’s been a particular challenge, because the classical dance they’re used to has very clear rules, while modern dance does not:

ZHANG: “I feel modern dance is not only about movement, it’s also about something that comes from within. For movement, you only need to do it and do it beautifully. But revealing your internal life is more difficult. In modern dance – it’s also more necessary. And I think that’s good.”

Zhang and the other Chinese dancers seem to have gotten the hang of it, in the parts of the performance where they dance freeform.

Akram Khan says rather than choreograph every step; he gave the dancers suggestions, and let them come up with their own movements. Some writhe, and twitch. Some drape themselves over their chairs, their suitcases and each other.

There’s a scene in the dance of a group hug, with the confused young woman at the center. There’s a touching moment of silence. Then, a mobile phone rings, and one person abruptly breaks away to take the call. Akram Khan says all the dancers called their mobile phones their lifelines to home:

KHAN: “The person who was on the phone in this piece, the Indian guy, Sedru, his home had been destroyed when he was young. So, he said a beautiful, an interesting thing, he said, ‘ever since my home was destroyed, I moved into my head. And now, all the walls I’m banging to get out are all inside my head.’ So, he’s trying to get outside his head now to find a home.”

The exploration in Bahok suggests that home is where you make it, home is where you remember it – but most of all, home is in the body – a carrier of culture and memory, identity and experience.

For The World, I’m Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing

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