It's almost impossible to categorise Akram Khan's unique style of dancing, falling as it does somewhere between Indian classical and contemporary. Some people describe it as "fusion." Khan laughingly refers to it as "confusion".
The 35-year-old London-born Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer simply won't be pinned down. As a child and young man he was trained in the Indian classical form of dancing known as kathak, but virtually abandoned that in favour of a contemporary dance style refined and developed around his own speed, power and mesmerising stage presence. "I don't call it fusion because fusion is a sense of perfection. Confusion is what I explored in my body which was getting all this different information. When my friend and partner Farooq Chaudhry and I started out, we just wanted to form a company which would have a group of dancers that I would work with. It was going to be contemporary dance that would have a strong connection to Indian classical dance and my training in kathak," he says.
Now, thanks to a collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, Khan is returning to his kathak roots with a brand new solo work, Gnosis, that explores his interaction with Arabic and world music and roots. He arrives in Abu Dhabi this week to work with two young Emirates-based musicians who will play on oud and qanoon, joining musicians from India, Japan and the UK, including the acclaimed Kodo drummer, Yoshie Sunahata. The end result will be two unique performances on Thursday and Friday at the Abu Dhabi Theatre, the second in a three-part collaboration with Adach. Last year he performed with the French actress Juliette Binoche in another original piece of dance theatre, called In-I. And next year he will embark on a third work, called Vertical Road, inspired by the Middle East's storytelling legacy and the spiritual heritage of the region.
Gnosis is inspired by the Mahabharat story of Queen Gandari, who blindfolds herself for life as a rebellious statement after being forced to marry her blind husband. It explores the notion of inner knowledge and clouded vision, "seeing darkness, and yet being blind to light". It features additional choreography by Gauri Sharma Tripathi and Sri Pratap Pawar, Khan's former teacher and lifelong mentor.
Khan, who was born in London and brought up in an apartment above his father's Indian restaurant in Wimbledon, South London, was sent by his parents to learn classical dance in a class run by the renowned performer Pratap Pawar. "I started dancing at the age of three taught by my mother," Khan says. "She longed to be a dancer as a young woman but her father was a respected mathematician before Bangladesh became independent. He didn't want his daughter to learn to dance because it was regarded as something disrespectful and too sleazy.
"So my mother secretly taught herself. She and her seven brothers would have tiffin boxes for their lunch and she would put her bells for dancing in there rather than food. Her brothers bought the bells for her with their lunch money." Khan's mother Anwara taught her son everything she knew about Bangladeshi folk and tribal dances but when he reached the age of seven, she decided he needed the discipline provided by kathak, one of the eight forms of Indian classical dance which traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India. Its basis is in storytelling and the dances are embellished with stylised hand gestures and facial expressions.
"I was a real pain at that age, uncontrollable and hyperactive. One thing Sri Pratap Pawar very quickly learnt was to give me something really physical to do so that I would calm down and start listening to him: like 20 very fast spins, which would wear me out. There was only one class and the pupils ranged from 18-year-olds to 40-year-olds. I was eight and my sister was four. Khan has enormous respect for the man he calls his "guru" and still visits him regularly. "He's very proud of me now but it took a long time for me to learn," he says. "There's something about wisdom and age that I feel the West has lost, especially my generation and younger. We are so geared to thinking that the young are the special ones. For me it's the older ones who have the experience and the knowledge. There's a certain wisdom that my guru has. He will always be wiser than me in some respects and I will be wiser than him in some respects. It's all about seeing something more than what there is.
"When I was young I was fascinated by speed and I still am. Now it has to be more profound. I don't just want to show off. There has to be a deep spiritual reason for what I do. What is beautiful about kathak is that it has both. It has the showmanship but it's also spiritual. I'm spiritual rather than religious. I do believe the stage is a temple. It's a very sacred place. We don't put our shoes on the stage unless it's part of the costume," he says.
Khan is speaking at London's Sadlers Wells Theatre, an institution with which he has a long-standing professional relationship. At 10 years old he was chosen to play the part of Mowgli in Pratap Pawar's touring company production of The Jungle Book. He admits he was often teased at school because dancing was seen as a feminine pursuit. But after he won several dance prizes, including a Michael Jackson disco competition, he was accepted by his peers. "They thought dancing was for women. But after I won the competition they thought I was OK and said, 'We like you, you're part of our group now.'"
He became fanatical about practice and turned his father's garage into a dance studio. "I trained eight hours a day in a garage that was filled with asbestos, although we didn't know at the time. There was a whole period where I was bunking out of school and I went crazy for a year, around the age of 17. We put down a plywood floor and there were no mirrors but there was electricity and I had a little heater for when it was cold. I trained there for a whole year. That became a ritual."
Around that time he began to rebel against the confines of the classical form and plunged into the world of contemporary dance, which he studied at De Montfort University in Leicester, graduating with a degree in performing arts. He continued his studies at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, by then convinced that he wanted to make dancing his career. For the most part he was supported by his parents until he announced that what they thought was just a hobby was going to be his life. "I decided to be a dancer very late in the game. I was more interested in percussion and trained as a percussionist on the tabla. My parents supported me all the way through until the point when it came to the decision of becoming a professional dancer. They got terrified but they could see I was fanatical. So we came to a compromise and they said, 'Just get the degree at least it will be something to fall back on.'"
Looking back he says he was not the most talented of students. In fact a visiting choreographer advised him to give up dancing and find another career. "I'm not really that talented. In reality my group and the people around me were far more talented. My talent was in persevering. In my class, if I had been a teacher, I wouldn't have noticed me. My sister was more talented than I was, she was super-fast and super-graceful but because I was so stubborn and not so talented that became my talent, my power and my strength. The others did the obvious things like being graceful and mathematical and it made me more determined to succeed.
"When I started to study contemporary dance my teacher said I just don't have the body for it, I'm not flexible, but my inflexibility became my strength. I became faster because I didn't have time to lift my leg up to 180 degrees." If he had listened to the advice of the visiting choreographer, he might have given it up altogether. He explains: "She was invited to come in and tell us about what it's like to work in the outside world. At the end of her visit she pointed to five of us, including myself, and said that we would never make it and we should change career now. It was at such a fragile stage, just about to leave college in the hope that you're going to get some work and somebody so important says something like that. I was very upset but then I thought my whole mission in life was going to prove that I could do it."
Ironically, Khan went to a show recently choreographed by the same woman, whom he prefers not to name. "She knows who I am now but I don't think she would remember she told me. Everyone was pushing me to go and tell her but I didn't. This sort of thing has happened all my life. Everybody around me was more talented, but talent only lasts to a certain point. You've got to work for it. What happens next is that with hard work and discipline I started to outgrow the talent of other people."
Determined to be a dancer, Khan set about developing a unique style both in the way he moved and the way he looks. "I started to say, 'What else can I do with this body that would make me unique in a way?' I moved in a way that nobody else could. The others had ballet bodies, bodies that were meant for dance. In kathak you have to have graceful wrists. You've got to look good, which I don't, so I shaved my hair off which is not typical of Indian dancers. They are inspired by the portraits of Krishna, which have long curly hair. A lot of dancers wore wigs and I didn't want to do that. It had to be me and I had to strip down to the bare bones."
After college Khan decided to start his own company with his friend, former dancer Chaudhry. Together they now run three separate companies, one that concentrates on ensemble work, which Khan choreographs; a second that focuses on his solo work and collaborations with other artists, such as the French prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem and Binoche; a third company was formed as a charity to help young dancers and filmmakers get a foot on the creative ladder. Khan's wife Shanell, also a dancer is currently on tour in Los Angeles with the ensemble team.
Working with an actress such as Binoche, who had never danced professionally until last year, was an exhilarating and occasionally frustrating experience for Khan. "The experience of working with an actress was fascinating," he says. "How dance can be translated through an actor's body is very different from the way dance is translated through a dancer's body. "There are limitations and hidden discoveries as well. The process of acting is fascinating, how they go through the process of developing a character. And how they take in movement and transmit it through their body and in words. With dancers, sometimes we don't need a reason to move, there's an internal reason, something a bit more intangible. Actors need a very clear direction. They need research to know why, what, when and who. The dancer has the ability to abstract it and deal with movement without feeling it's a narrative. I'm not saying it's the right way or the wrong way but it's the way we are trained. We become tools for exploring just movement."
Khan, who dances every day for at least one and a half hours, says he is excited about the Gnosis project and the opportunity to revisit his classical training after so many years of contemporary dance. "It's been something I have been wanting to do to return back to my classical roots and applying my experience to kathak. Adach is a fantastic organisation and they formulated the idea of working with local musicians. What better way to learn about a culture. It's very important to me in order to grow. It will be something special for Abu Dhabi."
Gnosis is divided into four parts beginning in a traditional way "with a very Islamic feel about it" and gradually becoming more deconstructed and contemporary. Khan plays all the characters. He says: "Kathak is a solo dance form. It gives you to tools to play the different characters. You transform yourself through the body. It starts off classical and deconstructs into contemporary. I didn't want just to show the classical. That's what I've been doing for the past 10 years and I wanted to use that experience in this work."
Gnosis takes place in Abu Dhabi Theatre at the Breakwater opposite Marina Mall on Thursday and Friday at 8.30 pm.