Faster than a speeding ballet

Is Akram Khan the most important British figure in international dance? As he returns to the UK with a work inspired by Quentin Tarantino, Lyndsey Winship meets a man in a hurry
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A study published last week found that Britain's image abroad remains one of snobbery, stiff upper lips and bad teeth. Plus ça change, you could say. So it's heartening to know that there are some people spreading a broader view of British culture across the globe: for example, the choreographer Akram Khan, Britain's biggest dance export.

A study published last week found that Britain's image abroad remains one of snobbery, stiff upper lips and bad teeth. Plus ça change, you could say. So it's heartening to know that there are some people spreading a broader view of British culture across the globe: for example, the choreographer Akram Khan, Britain's biggest dance export.

Khan has come to prominence over the past few years as a unique exponent of a fusion - "confusion", he calls it - between North Indian kathak and contemporary dance. His new work, Ma, only his second full-length piece, has just completed a run at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, and will arrive back in the UK this week.

Ma's passage round the world began in Singapore in May and has taken in Rome, Seoul, Munich, Stockholm, Taipei, Copenhagen and Vienna along the way, fitting in a very well-received UK premiere at this summer's Edinburgh Festival - where Khan was the only living British choreographer on the main programme.

It's probably safe to say Akram Khan is Britain's most in-demand artist worldwide, with an international touring schedule that must have him drowning in air miles. The ever-modest Khan is wary of sounding arrogant about his success, but you can't deny the facts. "The international scene has drawn us in much more than any other British company," he admits.

Although contemporary dance is a relatively small field in the arts, and one where dancers and choreographers commonly collaborate across international boundaries, audiences tend to show clear national tastes. The Americans love their smiley athleticism, while the Brits go for earnest abstraction, whether that's the pastoral lyricism of Richard Alston or hectic, hyperkinetic Wayne McGregor. On the continent however, the legacy of Pina Bausch's concept-driven dance theatre holds strong.

What's interesting about Khan's role as a dance ambassador - and may account for his global popularity - is that his work is not particularly representative of the British dance world at large. This is partly because of his cross-cultural heritage, but also thanks to his fondness for finding meaning in movement - that old-fashioned idea of telling a story. In Ma, Khan is moving into the realm of theatre, collaborating with the writer Hanif Kureishi on spoken text that is woven into the work.

Born in Britain to Bangladeshi parents, Khan grew up dancing kathak, a traditional form characterised by fast, rhythmic footwork and detailed hand and arm movements. Under parental pressure to go to university, he compromised by undertaking a dance degree at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, where his hybrid style emerged almost accidentally.

He went on to dance with Jonathan Burrows and Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker's X-Group in Brussels. He formed the Akram Khan Dance Company in 2000, developing his own choreography while continuing to perform solo kathak recitals.

To get from a newborn company to headlining at the Edinburgh Festival in four years is an impressive achievement. It was Khan's first full-length work, Kaash, made in 2002, that really made people sit up and take notice. Kaash was a collaboration with two other high-profile Asian artists, the sculptor Anish Kapoor and the composer Nitin Sawhney, and the trio proved to be a dream team: "Like being in a boyband," is how Khan describes it.

Whether his Zeitgeisty identity helped him to the top, Khan couldn't say. "In all honesty I think that might be right, but I would hope that it wasn't," he says. "I would hope that it's not because I'm British-Asian. I find it too much of a calling card. My history is my history. It's difficult [to know], because I've never been anything else."

He will concede, however, that it's not unknown for performers to be booked for their cultural identity. "I refuse to perform in theatres where they haven't even seen the work. I find that really offensive. How can you book someone if you know nothing about them? Then obviously you're booking it to fill some criteria: 'OK, this is the Asian company for this season.' And that really upsets me."

What you can be sure of is that, while fitting in with this season's fashions might help get you noticed, it won't be enough to keep you on the radar for long. "Théâtre de la Ville is the most prestigious theatre in the world - definitely in Europe. They're not easily impressed. We wouldn't be performing there if it was just about being British-Asian, it's because they believe in the work," he says.

Ma's more theatrical direction is sure to appeal to continental audiences who like their dance to be full of ideas, not just attractive images, but the urge to tell stories comes directly from Khan's kathak roots. "Kathakar" means "storyteller", and in kathak there is no separation of movement from meaning.

Khan appeared in the theatre as a teenager in Pandit Ravi Shankar's The Jungle Book and in Peter Brook's Mahabharata. The experience left a lasting impression. "I've always wanted to work with text," he says. "The reason I didn't use it in Kaash and in Rush, my earlier work, was that I didn't feel I could do it in an interesting way. Until I found that way, I didn't want to use it. I needed a reason."

Now Khan has found that reason. He reached 30 this year, and it seems it's all to do with growing up. "As you grow older you start to be more aware of what's happening in the rest of the world, and how the world is. I'm always painting a pretty picture of the world as a wonderful place, but actually it's in chaos."

Ma was directly inspired by an essay by Arundhati Roy about a group of farmers in India being displaced from their land. Ma, meaning "mother" and "Earth" in Hindi, revolves around ideas of nurturing, of the land, roots and memories.

Ma is not by any means a straightforward narrative, and Khan namechecks an unlikely source as his inspiration: Quentin Tarantino. On the surface, his latest work would seem to have little in common with the slick schlock of the retro-movie obsessive's films. But Khan can pinpoint the influences. "From Pulp Fiction I took the editing," he explains, meaning the way in which Tarantino plays around with the order of scenes, rather than running the story in a linear fashion. "I started with the last scene first. It was like scene 100, then I went to scene one, two, three, four and then I finished with 100. So the first time you see the last scene, you're confused, and then it starts to make sense.

"With Kill Bill, what I liked was that he made choices that were exactly the opposite to what people normally do. So when there's a dramatic scene, like a death scene, he would put the most light-hearted music on. And when there's a light scene, he would have the most dramatic, horrid death. And this contrast was something I was inspired by. It made me think about how adding something so light, almost in a joking way, to a dramatic scene, can make it even more powerful."

The result is something that lies between abstraction and narrative, and still leaves plenty to the imagination. "I don't believe that you can extract a single meaning from movement - it's just a question of how clear it is. Some work is almost like a canvas or a sheet of paper with some drawing on it, and you have to interpret it in your own way. With Ma, I wanted to be a little bit clearer, a little bit more specific, but I still didn't want to lose the imagination of the audience. I don't want to cut their imagination off. That's almost like reading a beautiful book, and then seeing the film of it. Like when I read Harry Potter, it was fantastic, and then I saw the film and it just ruined everything that I had imagined."

Although in person Khan is placid, polite and softly spoken ("company members joke around with me because they think I'm a harmony freak"), he clearly has a strength of vision that verges on rebelliousness - because integrity is everything in his work. "If somebody says not to do something but I really believe in it, I will do it. And in that way, I suppose I'm very rebellious. Especially in work. If somebody says, don't go down that road, it's a dead end, I will completely go down it.

"It's like the text I'm using," he goes on. "I added some new text - just three lines - and everybody hates it. And I love it. And it's not because they hate it that I love it, but because I believe in it. So tonight [when the dancer reads it] the company's going to get a shock!"

He adds: "People get so attached to something that they think is successful, that they're not willing to open up to other things." In other words, don't get too attached to the idea of Akram Khan as just "that Indian fusion guy", because he's destined to become a whole lot more. And that's why this uniquely British performer is such a worldwide success.

'Ma', Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh (01728 687110), 26-27 November; Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 380 0400), 30 November to 5 December