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Dance like a man
Moments from Akram Khan’s show Gnosis

When Akram Khan was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, in July, the presenter Kirsty Young described the 38-year-old dancer and choreographer as “daring, exquisite, explosive”.

For once, it wasn’t a hype — Akram, who will be dancing in Calcutta on September 14, is widely acclaimed as one of the most exciting contemporary dancers in Britain.

His appearance will probably count among the highlights of the city’s cultural calendar for the year.

So what insights did Akram offer on Desert Island Discs, the programme on which those distinguished enough to be invited choose their eight favourite pieces of music, plus a luxury and a book?

Akram’s music selection included Tagore’s Ananda Dhara, but performed by the British-Bangladeshi pianist and composer Zoe Rahman and her clarinetist brother, Idris Rahman.

His chosen book was Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize winner, The God of Small Things. The luxury was a skipping rope.

Before leaving for India, where his tour will also take him to Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi, Akram spoke exclusively to t2 about returning to Calcutta after nine years.

Since his last visit in 2003, Akram has been travelling for almost 10 months every year and has dazzled audiences all over the world. A billion television viewers saw him do a dance sequence during the Danny Boyle masterminded Olympic opening ceremony on July 27.

“I am very excited,” he said about his visit to Calcutta.

He wasn’t just being polite. “You know Calcutta is really the centre of culture in India — I find Calcutta and Chennai places where I get really nervous. Not nervous, but I am aware the audience is very cultured.”

He has brought a show called Gnosis — the word means “knowledge” in Greece.

“The first half is traditional classical kathak — my interpretation of the classical; the second half is a piece based on Gandhari,” he said. “It is the relationship between mother and son, between Gandhari and Duryodhana (taken from the Mahabharata).”

It was important for him to get it right in India.

“You know it is funny — the thing that you admire the most is the thing you can never get so easily and India is the place where I have wanted to take back my contemporary work,” continued Akram. “What is interesting about this show is that I am presenting my classical work in the first half and contemporary in the second. It shows the form I grew up in and also the departure from that form — all in one show. It has always been a dream of mine to present regularly in India.”

Akram will also be taking master classes in Chennai, Calcutta and Delhi. He will be discussing “the process of how one creates work”.

India is lucky to see him at all, for Akram’s career very nearly came to a tragic and sudden end earlier this year.

“I was injured in January — it was very serious,” he revealed. “It was a complete tear of the Achilles tendon, which meant I would not dance again. The Achilles tendon is just behind the heel — if it is ruptured you cannot walk again. Basically, you cannot stand. I was in rehearsals with Sylvie (French ballerina Sylvie Guillem) when it happened.”

The prognosis was grim. “My career was over unless I had an operation — my dance career, not choreography. They (doctors) said you need an operation and serious rehabilitation.”

Before leaving for India, Akram went to Germany and gave three trial performances of Gnosis — two in Berlin and one in Weimar. “They were my first performance in seven months. That went okay, so it is very reassuring now.”

Akram Khan performs at the Danny Boyle masterminded Olympics opening ceremony

He usually does a little yoga as part of his daily regime: “I am not an expert, (I do) just enough to lengthen the body. Since my injury, I am swimming for the first time very seriously.”

“I am 80 per cent of what I will ever be,” speculated Akram. “Even when I am performing it is not the same because I have to be cautious. I am frustrated because I am choosing very carefully what I can and cannot do. Kathak puts a lot of pressure but contemporary puts even more pressure — it’s been okay, so far so good.”

As for his sequence during the Olympics opening ceremony, he said, “I was dancing but (it was) very minimal. With Danny Boyle we discussed that — I would do very little because it was too risky for me to put too much pressure on my Achilles; it was not healed.”

Akram was born on July 29, 1974, in Wimbledon, south London, with easy reach of the world famous tennis courts. His parents came to Britain from what was then East Pakistan in 1969. His father, Mosharaf Hossain Khan, ran a curry restaurant for 20 years, while in the flat above, his mother, Anwara, passed on her love of music and dance to Akram.

“I owe everything to my parents, particularly to my mother,” said “mamma’s boy” Akram.

In 1985, he embarked at the age of 11 on a two-year world tour, when he was cast as Eklavya in Peter Brook’s momentous production of the Mahabharata.

Over the years, Akram has collaborated with, among others, composer Nitin Sawhney, sculptors Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem and French actress Juliette Binoche.

He spoke of his dance philosophy: “Ever since I was young, I have been hugely inspired by Bruce Lee.”

He saw a parallel with his own life, “Bruce Lee always talked about form but he became frustrated with the martial arts form when he realised he was not expressing himself. He was expressing a form.”

But Bruce Lee borrowed from other forms to enhance his own. “He borrowed from dance, he borrowed from boxing. He incorporated ideas and created his own form. I had a similar experience. I thought I was trapped because I could not be the ideal kathak dancer.”

Currently he is working on the choreography for Desert Dancer, a film based on the true story of how Afshin Ghaffarian risked his life in Iran to fight for his dream of becoming a dancer. It is directed by Richard Raymond and stars Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie and Alfred Molina.

He doesn’t have enough time on the current trip but “one of my dreams is to go to Nrityagram (the Indian dance village established by the late Protima Bedi near Bangalore). I hope to do it one day.”