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Thoughts from an Observer - Akram Khan Company Classical Intensive

November 2019

It was with excitement and trepidation that I walked into Sadler’s Wells studios on Monday morning to attend Akram Khan Company’s very first Classical Intensive. I was selected to attend as an Observer...but what did that mean? Would I dance or would I sit and watch the week’s worth of sessions? Could I maybe sneak into the classes at the back? We had received an email about Observer Etiquette - “Be a silent observer, unless asked to do otherwise” as the first rule. But...I’m a dancer. I learn through moving and experiencing. What do you mean I have to sit silently and observe others for the entire week?

What was I doing here? I’ve studied and performed bharatanatyam for most of my life, choreographing during the latter part of it. I applied to the Intensive since I was looking for inspiration at this point of my career. How do I go deeper as a performer and choreographer? Having followed Akram Khan Company for years, I was overwhelmingly curious about the choreography process at one of the most highly regarded contemporary dance companies in the world. But I was also hoping for deeper inspiration, something to guide me to answer my own, rather existential, questions.

The intensive classes were split between kathak and bharatanatyam dancers, and the observers saw both groups grapple with either Akram’s “Xenos” solo choreography (kathak) or Mavin Khoo’s “We Are But Shadows” duet choreography (bharatanatyam). In observing Akram’s session first, it was revealing that no choreography was taught in the first 2 hours. Akram spoke and went through exercises on what it means to embody the narrative instead of “showing”. He told a fascinating story about his experience with Peter Brooks who spent an entire day putting his actors through an exercise so physically and mentally taxing before even opening the script. In doing this, they had no choice but to act instinctively, instead of putting on a show. The goal, he emphasized, was to move in a way that is so fundamentally true that the audience “feels” with you without needing to “understand” you. A powerful skill, particularly for Indian dance in the diaspora where audiences have little to no context on the rich language of gestures and the nuances of the lyrics and stories presented.

In contrast, Mavin’s group jumped right into learning choreography. After a couple of days, we were left with more questions than answers about the underlying narrative and the choreography process. Much came to light on Wednesday after the steps were learned. Mavin explained the significance behind the Mallari he was teaching and showed a video of a ritual procession, the intensity of which he wanted to invoke on stage. At once, the atmosphere in the room changed, and the class envisioned what their bodies were meant to convey. The real lesson then began as Mavin pushed the dancers to find the truth of the narrative through the physicality of the movement, to show the immense weight of the rath, or chariot, and embody the ecstasy of the devotees.

In the short moments when Akram and Mavin demonstrated their choreography in class, it was clear how their devotion to fundamental technique was the basis of their ability to embody the complex narrative of their work. In watching the dancers stretch themselves to embody the same, it was clear how it is much easier said than done. Many dancers (and observers) expressed a renewed commitment to deep practice and honing of basic technique to help facilitate such full body commitment.

Akram Khan Company, even just in its name, appears to rely on the creative genius of one person, so it was refreshing to discover how collaborative the process was behind the scenes. Both Akram and Mavin emphasized their strong brotherhood, describing how each production was developed with multiple collaborators invested from the start. In an intimate chat with the observers, Akram mentioned he is never in the studio by himself, that he always has another collaborator present with him, whether it is Mavin as artistic advisor, or a dramaturg, lighting designer, and/or sound designer.

There were many more special moments throughout the week - thoughtful discussions with our fellow participants, reflecting on all we had experienced; a rousing konnakol workshop with B.C. Manju. We all felt the magic of the collective, this gathering of dancers from across the globe in a shared, transformative, experience. Along this same vein, I resonated deeply with a comment Akram made about the power of the live performance. To paraphrase, he said the live performance is one of the last community rituals we have left as a society. In a world where technology has removed the need for humans to physically gather, the live performance makes space for the collective view on the performer, a place where a group can experience something rather than the individual.

At the beginning of the week, Akram had asked us all to “Surrender.” I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant, but by the end, it became more clear for me. Surrendering my ego as a dancer and absorbing the week’s sessions as a silent observer. Surrendering to the narrative - leaving one’s personal agenda aside in favor of the truth that the choreography seeks to represent. Surrendering to the technique - pushing the body to its physical limits so the brain stops thinking and the body just does. I came away from the Intensive with a renewed sense of purpose in my journey as an artist, having found the inspiration I was looking for.


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