Akram Khan: 'You have to become a warrior'

He's the darling of the dance world, and beyond, with artists such as Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley lining up to work with him

"In Asian culture," says Akram Khan, "you don't have a voice. You just accept what everybody says." It is, I have to say, rather hard to believe now. The darling of the dance world has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of his form, tossing in a visual artist here, a musician there, a writer there, and then maybe adding, just for fun, an actress who's never danced in her life. Hailed as "the great new hope" and "wunderkind" of contemporary dance, "a phenomenon" and "a marvel", he's an (extremely muscular) human whirlwind, leaping from project to project, and travelling the world on an endless, exhaustive, exhausting quest for new ideas, new creative partnerships, new marriages of story and feeling and form. For a man obsessed with the idea of stillness, he's remarkably bad at it. Brilliant on stage, but not so good in life.

Here, on a Saturday night at Sadler's Wells (the only spare hour, apparently, in his entire week) he is all coiled energy and focus. Perched on a plastic chair in a giant rehearsal room that's eerily quiet, this short, bald, brown man has a poised presence that radiates through the room. His voice is quiet and his manner is gentle. "In my community, it was really tough," he says. "I disagreed all the time, but it was in my head." What, this man who has worked with Anish Kapoor, and Hanif Kureishi, and Juliette Binoche, and Kylie Minogue, never stood up to anyone in his community? Ever? "No," he says in that half-whisper, "because it's a form of disrespect."

No wonder, then, that he understands that different kind of respect, the gang culture in which any minuscule signal of the lack of it is enough to pay for with your life. In his new solo work, Gnosis, which opens Svapnagata, a two-week festival of Indian music and dance at Sadler's Wells (co-curated with his friend and regular collaborator, Nitin Sawhney), he plays a hoodie, to a musical background of Dizzee Rascal. "It's something familiar in me," he says, "because that's how I was when I was young. I was a big fan of Michael Jackson and I was really into hip-hop."

That, however, is the second half. The first half is kathak, the classical Indian form that Khan trained in from the age of seven. It's a form that goes back to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, and one which uses stylised gestures to tell mythological tales. It's the first time he has combined classical and contemporary work in one evening, and the aim, he says, is to explore the story of the Mahabharata in both a traditional and a contemporary context. "I was talking to my wife," he says (the South African dancer Shanell Winlock), "and trying to explain to her about Gandhari, the blind queen in the Mahabharata, but for her to understand I had to tell her everything about it. So that," he adds, "is the beginning of Gnosis. I wanted to talk about inner knowledge, and for me knowledge wasn't in books, because I was pushed to read books."

Ah yes, that strict Asian upbringing again. Work hard, pass your exams, become a doctor or an accountant. With Khan, needless to say, it wasn't quite like that. The son of a Bangladeshi father who ran an Indian restaurant in Wimbledon, and a Bangladeshi mother who had childhood dreams of escape through dance, he started dancing when he was three. "We would do it at mela. It's like an outdoor Indian festival," he says. "I didn't want to, because nobody would sit and watch. People were talking and my mother said 'if you can win this audience, this is the test'. That's where I learnt the most."

By seven, he was studying kathak, under the great kathak dancer Sri Pratap Pawar. At 14, he appeared in Peter Brook's legendary production of The Mahabharata, and the TV version that followed. He always loved dancing, but it was a while before he thought that it was something he could pursue for a career. After studying contemporary dance at De Montfort University and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, he began presenting solo performances both contemporary and kathak in the 1990s and started his own company, with Farooq Chaudhry, who he describes as his "brother and soulmate", in 2000. Since then, the accolades, and the awards, have poured in: for Sacred Monsters, his astonishing duo with Sylvie Guillem about the quest for perfection; for Bahok, his buoyant exploration of people on the move; for in-i, his moving portrayal, with first-time-dancer Juliette Binoche, of the agony and ecstasy of romantic love; and for Zero Degrees, a truly awe-inspiring collaboration with fellow dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and sculptor Antony Gormley, that turns a journey through India into a parable about life and death.

It all looks effortless. It isn't, of course. No art is effortless and perhaps dance, which uses the human body as the instrument, least of all. But it does look full of rewards. And yet Khan has said in an interview that the best advice he could give a young dancer would be "don't". Does he mean it? He grins, and for a moment this 35-year-old dance god looks like a teenager. "There's an element of truth in it," he says. "You have to become a warrior and you have to give your body up. There was a point," he adds, "when, for a year, I practised eight, 10, hours a day. It was in an asbestos garage of my father's. There was a cement floor. There was a point when you were crying, but after a while you get used to the pain, so you have to push yourself further."

Bloody hell. And I was cursing that the lift was broken. But isn't this just, well, a tiny bit masochistic? Khan grins again. "It is," he says, "but I think to go deep, you have to kind of give yourself. It's like rugby. I love rugby. My friend used to say 'why are you playing rugby, you're the smallest guy in the whole thing?', but I loved running for my life, the adrenalin of running away from six-foot guys who were ready to pounce on you." Now, he practises for about two hours a day, but tries, he says, "to put 10 hours" into those two. Does he eat fantastically healthily? "No." And smoke? He looks worried, and mentions his mum. And drink? "No. I was working at my dad's restaurant as a waiter and we had these very rowdy, racist men, who were very abusive. I blamed it," he says, "on the alcohol, and vowed that I wouldn't drink."

It reminds me, I tell him, of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, one of the few portrayals in contemporary fiction of the racial abuse of adult Asian men working in Indian restaurants by their young white customers. "Yeah," he says. "It's pretty humiliating. And my father took it. It's a business, after all." So, the usual immigrant experience, then. Identity, in fact, immigrant identity, is the central theme of Khan's work, occasionally, I have to say, to a point where you wish it wasn't. Does he ever feel that it might be time to move on to something else? Khan looks serious now. "Yeah, definitely," he says. "It's interesting, but sometimes it comes back. I went through a phase of really exploring Hindu mythology with Anish [Kapoor]. We did Kaash, with Nitin Sawhney. Ma [a piece inspired by Arundhati Roy's polemic about farmers in India] was about earth. It's usually what's happening in life."

A number of his collaborators, I point out Kapoor, Kureishi, Sawnhey are Asian, and so are some of the writers Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga he's said he wants to work with in the future. Is there something there about a shared sensibility? "No," he says firmly, "not at all. It's just because I love their work. It becomes universal." Yes, but so, surely, does the work of a lot of non-Asian artists? "With Anish," he says, "it was just a discovery. I saw his red wall, and it was just at the right time."

Khan thinks Kapoor is a genius. "When I speak to Anish," he says, "he listens, and when he speaks, I listen." What he admires most of all is the way that artists change when they're in the studio, how "they become like a kid with an amazing toy". He seeks out new creative partners by inviting artists he admires to his show, and then for dinner, or coffee. But sometimes, he says, "the wrong chemistry's the right chemistry". He's speaking, it soon becomes clear, about Antony Gormley. "Here's a man," he says, "who's super-tall, giant. I'd have to look up at him and every day without fail he'd come in with another set, to the point where it was like 'oh my God, can we stick to one?' But we did Zero Degrees, and it's probably the most successful, most profound work I've done."

I think it probably is, but it's a tough call because Khan really is an extraordinarily talented choreographer, one who can conjure near-miracles from the human form. At one point, he actually thought he was a genius not in dance, weirdly, but in maths. His grandfather was a mathematical genius (in the Beautiful Mind mould) and, inspired by the mathematical complexities of kathak, Khan began to feel that he might be, too. "There was a point," he says, "where I could codify people mathematically. I could read you like a phone number, depending on the colour of your eyes, your hair, your height." It sounds, I tell him, a little bit crazy. Was it? Khan gives a strange little nervous giggle. "Yah," he says. And did it feel it at the time? "No," he says, "because I was alone."

I have a sudden glimpse of Akram Khan as a child, and then a teenager, isolated in his huge extended family, dreaming, fighting, alone. "The only time I came alive," he says, "was in dance class. When I was a child, the boys wouldn't talk to me. I'd be the only one in the corner of the party, and I'd know 'I'm not invited, my parents are, because I'm not intelligent enough'. And most of the others went to private schools. My sister went to a private school." So, why didn't he? "It was a test of my mum, really," he says. And then he laughs. "Actually, that's a lie. I just never got in. I tried all of them. I didn't get in."

For a moment, he looks sad, but it's clear who's laughing now. Khan, who only left the family home when he married and still lives round the corner, sees his parents every day. His father brings tea in the morning. His mother cooks dinner at night. Khan and his wife have never even switched on their own oven. Now, the boys he grew up with, the accountants who did their homework, and passed their exams, are jealous. His mother is proud. She has always been proud. And his father, the man who night after night suffered the abuse of young white English men, keeps every cutting, every review, every profile. "He rings up the company every week," says Khan. And then he giggles. "It really pisses them off."

'Gnosis' premieres at Sadler's Wells on 16 November. Svapnagata runs until 28 November; www.sadlerswells.com

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit