In the mind of Igor
On the hundred year anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring', British choreographer Akram Khan presents 'iTMOi'.PT1M59S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2ru7s 620 349 August 13, 2013
Exactly a century ago in Paris, the Ballets Russes presented a new ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky set to a piece of music so incendiary that, according to reports at the time, there were fist fights in the audience between its supporters and detractors. Enraged patrons threw anything to hand into the pit; the orchestra played on, but the dancers couldn't hear them over the furore. Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring had arrived and, with its disrupted rhythms and repetitive melodic motifs, pulled the rug from under classical music. Even Stravinsky, who did not take kindly to any sort of mockery, described it in his autobiography as ''un scandale''.
Fast forward to the triumph of Akram Khan, whose ultra-hot status among choreographers turned into broad fame when he designed the vivid dance sequences for the London Olympics opening ceremony last year. When he was asked to work on iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor), a commemorative piece for The Rite of Spring's centenary, he knew what he didn't want to do. He didn't want to do a Rite of Spring. Nijinsky had done it; Pina Bausch had done it ''amazingly''; Fabulous Beast had done it ''fabulously''. As he says now, what would be the point?
As a creator, nobody set a path for me. So I'm always a little bit lost ...
Instead, he decided, he would investigate the creative struggle that led Stravinsky to his breakthrough, that culminating moment when he ''found his voice''. The idea of the artist's voice is Khan's special subject; he keeps returning to it. Stravinsky, he says, ''respected classical form, but he had to prove himself. His peers didn't accept it necessarily, and he knew it. I've always been fascinated by that in my own work as an artist.''
Introspective: Akram Khan. Photo: Supplied
In a way, Khan, 39, is an unlikely fit with such a monument of the Western tradition as Igor Stravinsky. Born and raised in Balham, a vigorously multicultural part of London, his Bangladeshi parents did everything possible to reinforce his roots. His father ran a restaurant; his mother was an English teacher, but didn't speak English to him until he was 10, when she shocked her son by wishing him a happy birthday. From the age of seven, he was sent with his sister to classes in Indian classic kathak dance.
''My mother pushed me in my dancing,'' he said a few years ago. ''I didn't want to go … I would be so miserable at class until a few years later, when I grew up a bit and started to enjoy it.''
Now, everything he does is grounded in kathak; he still practises it for a couple of hours a day, strapping the bells to his ankles each morning. At the same time, however, Khan's work is absolutely contemporary. Major works that reverberate with both influences, made under the auspices of his own company and at Sadler's Wells in London, include Kaash, Zero Degrees, Vertical Road and Desh, all of which have toured Australia.
But there are also the performance adventures, such as a dance he made with French film actor Juliette Binoche - for which he learnt to play guitar - and the four songs he choreographed for Kylie Minogue's Showgirl tour in 2005. Collaborations, both with dancers and with artists from other disciplines altogether, such as sculptors Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, are fundamental to his work; right now, he and flamenco maestro Israel Galvan are working on a piece that will somehow combine their disparate styles. ''We don't know how to imagine it,'' he says placidly. ''I'm shit at flamenco! I tried and I was absolutely horrendous! But I love it when I look crap, because I will find my own truth in it over time.''
That determination to discover something new is clearly his common ground with Igor Stravinsky. But whereas Stravinsky's search involved setting himself against a musical establishment, Khan never felt the same competitive urge. ''Nobody really does what I do,'' he says. He admires plenty of his contemporaries - he reels off a string of names - but they are inspirations, he says, rather than influences. ''I have a kathak master whom I really admire and respect but as a creator, nobody set a path for me. So I'm always a little bit lost. The one artist I did look up to was Peter Brook.
Khan was only 13 when he won a place in British theatre director Peter Brook's landmark interpretation of the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit saga telling the story of the Hindu gods and the battles of the Indian ancients. He performed with Brook for more than two years, which suggests his subsequent move into avant-garde performance was inevitable. It didn't feel that way. ''The reason I started doing contemporary dance was because of my community putting pressure on me to become a doctor or a lawyer,'' he says. He didn't have the marks, ''so I ran away to Leicester, to the only university that accepted me''.
Studying dance at the De Montfort University's school for performing arts, he was able to present a piece at London's annual Dance Umbrella festival, directed by Gregory Nash. ''He spoke to me afterwards. He said, 'You know, you have something there, something that belongs to you and I've never seen it before.' And I said, 'Really? I'm just doing what my course teacher told me to do.' He said, 'No, there is a movement language there you're tapping into, even if you're not aware of it.'''
Since then, his career has been a succession of pinnacles and prizes, sustained by hard work. A few years ago, he said he wished he could stay in the studio constantly. Now, with a baby only four months old with his wife, Shanelle Winlock, he is trying to find time to stay at home, but the pace remains hectic.
iTMOi differs from his previous works, he says, in that it is not about him. In fact, it draws surprisingly heavily on The Rite of Spring's story, in which a girl in a long-ago Russian village is chosen to dance herself to death. ''The major theme, of course, is about sacrifice,'' Khan says. ''I thought it was very important to stay close to what Stravinsky was doing, rather than the outrage. People talk as much about what happened in 1913 as they do about the music, which frustrated me a bit. And I didn't want to do outrage, because that's not coming from within me.''
Stravinsky's original music is heard only in tiny snatches and echoes. Three composers - Khan's frequent collaborator Nitin Sawhney, the Iceland-based Australian Ben Frost and Jocelyn Pook - worked on the score. ''I said, 'Use The Rite of Spring as an inspiration. Don't be stuck by it,''' Khan says. ''We have the freedom to search.'' His own search, however, led him straight back to Stravinsky, who, as a character in a frock-coat, becomes his chosen sacrificial subject, merging the ritual story with aspects of the composer's real life. There are hints of Stravinsky's own childhood illness, sounds reminiscent of St Petersburg and motifs exploring his obsessions with pattern and repetition.
Other elements are more mysterious. What is the creature that creeps in the background in a leotard with horns, like a man become insect? Who is the tumbling male dancer in a vast skirt, who finishes by dancing upside down? ''I gave myself permission not to make sense,'' Khan says. ''So every time the piece made sense, the dramaturge Ruth Little and I would say, 'OK, how do we smudge it?' It was hard, because I am used to making work that may be metaphorical but where there is still a clear beginning, middle and end. This is more twisted … I took more risks.''
It is also the first piece he has not made on his own body: ''A lot used to come out of my body, which meant it was more kathak. So it was good, because it allowed me to breathe through the dancers. When you take my body away you're taking my ego away, which allows space for me to really investigate them.'' Much of the specific movement, he says, is the work of his assistant choreographers Andrej Petrovic and Jose Agudo. ''I just sat on a chair and got fat. Literally! I was eating all the time, telling people try this, try that. I was more interested in directing, the structure and vision of it.''
So is it still his movement language? There is a long, contemplative pause. ''It's never been my language to start with,'' Khan says at last.
''It's never originally yours. My body went through Michael Jackson, so I have to thank Michael Jackson for it. I have to thank Bruce Lee for it, because I used to copy Bruce Lee all the time. I used to imitate Charlie Chaplin all the time. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly - these people I was imitating all the time, so what can I say is mine? It's just the way I present it that belongs to me.
''The kathak is not really mine; I just do it in my own way, because I am affected by contemporary dance. Nothing is really mine, as such. Apart from my voice.''
iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor) is at the Opera House from August 28.