Akram Khan Company bring their show Gnosis to 2014 Edinburgh International Festival
Dancer and creator Akram Khan is back on fighting form after injury with work based on the Hindu goddess of intelligence
This article is from 2014.
Based on an epic Hindu poem, Akram Khan’s Gnosis transported him back to memories of childhood. He tells Kelly Apter that becoming a parent has given him fresh insight into his characters and why injuries won’t be holding him back
Touring the world for two years with one of Britain’s most revered theatre directors would be a dream come true for most performers. But when you’re 13 years old and accustomed to spending time watching Michael Jackson videos to perfect your dance moves, being part of an endless replaying of ancient text can be a challenge.
Almost 30 years after appearing in Peter Brook’s highly acclaimed production of The Mahabharata, Akram Khan is now one of Britain’s most dynamic and sought-after creators. But the memory of performing the Hindu poem, an epic work of almost 100,000 couplets, still looms large. ‘It’s like an imprint,’ says Khan. ‘I heard that narrative so many times, I wanted to commit suicide. But in the end, the reason I didn’t want to is because you always discover something new in it. So even though we performed it day-in day-out for two years, there are so many stories within The Mahabharata, you never feel like you know it all.’
After such an auspicious start, the career Khan carved out for himself makes perfect sense. Forced to attend dance classes by his mother from the age of seven, he became a regular sight at Bengali dance festivals in and around London, performing the Indian classical style of Kathak. Mix that with his Jackson and Fred Astaire obsession plus a university training in contemporary dance, and you’ve got a coming together of old and new which has typified Khan’s company for the past 14 years.
At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, he has come full circle, revisiting the place where his professional life began. Inspired by two characters from within the text of The Mahabharata, Khan first created Gnosis in 2009, focusing on Gandhari who marries a blind king and spends the rest of her life blindfolded in order to share his journey, and their eldest son Duryodhana.
Khan’s ‘fascination’ with Gandhari and her children started during his time with Brook. But the complexities of a parent / child relationship are viewed very differently by an adolescent and an adult. About to turn 40 this July, Khan’s understanding of the Hindu text has also been shaped by recent events in his own life. ‘When you’re 14 years old, what do you know about what it means to have a child or to be a parent?’ he says. ‘And it’s funny, because I made Gnosis two years ago; and then I had a child myself last year. So, my relationship with the piece has changed even more, and there are many more layers to it now.’
Gandhari is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see into the future, so is painfully aware that a great battle will bring about the demise of her sons: all 100 of them. What impact did the birth of Khan’s daughter have on his approach to Gnosis?
‘You personalise it, because you can imagine what it might be like to be Gandhari and the trauma that she goes through in losing her children one by one. And she knows that she’s going to lose them because she can foresee the future. So you kind of try to relate to that, and it’s more relatable when you have your own child.’ One child, maybe: but 100? On the surface, the mythical tale seems too fantastical to have any relevance to modern audiences, but for Khan, it’s not the message that matters, but the messenger.
‘The reason they’re myths is because they’re universal,’ he says. ‘But what’s important is not so much what you’re saying – it’s the same thing we’ve been saying since humanity began – but how you say it. And how we reveal things and express things in the theatre, because that will make it relevant or not to the audience.’
Unfortunately, the first audiences to lay eyes on Gnosis, were left wondering exactly what Khan was trying to express. Prior to its official premiere at Sadler’s Wells, the piece was performed outside of London. But an injury had forced Khan to wear a shoulder strap, slowing down the creative process and leaving the piece under-rehearsed. ‘It was a disaster,’ he recalls. ‘Because it wasn’t embodied; I was creating it in my head and it didn’t work. That was a great revelation for me. I failed big time, and it showed me that it doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you can still fail.’
Khan’s shoulder recovered and the piece was eventually finished and performed. A difficult time maybe, but nothing compared to an injury Khan suffered two years later. ‘My Achilles tendon ruptured at the beginning of 2012, and that was almost the end of my career. But I had an operation and then months of physio. Slowly, slowly I came back.’
Had Khan chosen ballet or straightforward contemporary instead of Kathak, his career might soon be over anyway. But as he says, age is less of an obstacle for him and 43-year-old Fang-Yi Sheu, his partner in Gnosis. ‘In Western dance we stop early, because ballet in particular is designed for a young body,’ says Khan. ‘But with flamenco and Indian dance, after the age of 40 you actually get better; they’re designed for an older body. And there’s something about Fang-Yi’s body that has a lot of richness and versatility. She can tell stories without actually saying them; it’s all in her, and you can feel it.’
Although essentially abstract in style, Gnosis requires Fang-Yi and Khan to climb inside the hearts and minds of Gandhari and Duryodhana. In order to portray the war-hungry son, Khan plundered his own familial relations, adolescent traumas and yearnings. ‘I just see my own mother when I’m performing,’ he says. ‘And when there’s turmoil happening, I think about the turmoil I had when I was a teenager: between going to school and not wanting to go to school, and going through that phase of wanting more than you’re given. You reflect a lot upon your past and your experiences, and then put that into the situation of the character.’
Akram Khan Company: Gnosis, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, 19–21 Aug, 8pm, £12–£32.