"This work isn't trying to say anything," says South Bank choreographer-in-residence Akram Khan. "I have nothing to say." That's not strictly true.
Talk for 45 minutes to Khan and his current collaborator, the Mercury Prize-nominated musician Nitin Sawhney, and your head will spin (mine did) with how much the pair have to say: about dance, about physics, about Hindu mythology. But is their conversation entirely comprehensible? Ah, well that's a different matter. So it's just as well that Khan refers to the surfeit of source ideas for their new production, Kaash, as "just starting points, and not necessarily what I'm trying to say in the work."
Kaash is one of the most mouthwatering arts events of the spring, a uniting of the talents of Khan, Sawhney and the Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor. The 27-year-old Khan, who has pioneered a fusion of the classical Indian form kathak with contemporary dance (after debuting onstage as the infant star of Peter Brook's legendary Mahabharata), is being hailed by the dance world as a once-in-a-generation talent. Kaash is his first full-length work. He brought on board Sawhney (with whom he's worked before) and Kapoor (with whom he hasn't) because "I felt like I could say something with them," says the man with nothing to say. Both, he adds, are concerned with "concepts of illusion and reality."
Which is what Kaash is all about. The word means "if". Khan was keen to devise a piece about the god Shiva, the creator and the destroyer in Hindu religion. He's interested in the cyclical nature of creation and destruction. "Say I have this ashtray and I drop it," he demonstrates, in the pub opposite his London rehearsal room. "I've destroyed it, but I've also created all these smaller pieces. Then I pick up this smaller piece and drop it – it's that cycle that I'm investigating."
Enter 37-year-old Sawhney, to add a whole new dimension, quite literally, to the Kaash concept. "I'd read a book a few years ago," he says, "called The Eye of Shiva, which talks about how modern physics coincides with the subjective view of the universe articulated by Hinduism." The subjective view of the universe? Sawhney cites another book, The Fabric of Reality, by Oxford professor David Deutsch. Deutsch posits the idea – all too familiar to sci-fi fans – that the universe is actually a multiverse, an infinite range of parallel existences that fan out from every decision we make, or don't make.
"These concepts of potential," says Sawhney, "suggest a universe that is much less certain and much more volatile. The illusory universe is a major Hindu concept."
Khan has clearly found contagious Sawhney's fascination with the Hindu-physics crossover. He namechecks Oppenheimer, – "one of the creative team behind the atomic bomb. When the first nuclear tests happened, just before Hiroshima, he quoted The Bhagavad Gita [the Sanskrit poem]: 'this is the creator and the destroyer, Shiva'."
Hinduism also presaged science's understanding of black holes. In mythology, after evil spirits contaminated the world, Shiva sucked their poison out of the river Ganges in the same way, according to Khan, that "light, matter and sound all get sucked towards black holes as they come near." Hence Khan's design concept for Kaash: "I wanted the space to feel as if it were being sucked or absorbed into a hole. Anish has created an illusion that makes you feel like that."
It all looks like unmanageably vast raw material for a show – which may be why Khan is claiming that Kaash isn't "about" Hinduism or physics. These ideas are too sprawling to stage; perhaps they can be evoked. To do so, Khan has broken the show into three discrete parts. Inspired by Sawhney's notion, culled from Stephen Hawking, that "the universe will eventually have expanded infinitely, and another Big Bang will happen," the triptych seeks to suggest the cycle of cosmic creation and destruction. "The first part describes the physicality of preparation for war," says Khan: "something is about to explode. The second part is more about the explosion. The third part rebuilds. What happens after catastrophe?" With Kaash, Khan and Sawhney probably won't find out – the show looks like a sure-fire hit. Western audiences, used to thinking of science and religion as opposites, will be provoked by the very suggestion that physics was foreshadowed by ancient myth. But in Eastern culture, says Muslim-born Khan, "science is so part of mythology. They're completely connected. You can't separate them." For Sawhney, whose background is Hindu, the production has been even more meaningful. "For me," he says, "the whole Hindu idea of subjective reality has now been confirmed by physicists. They make it more clear to me how Hinduism, not in a religious way but in a philosophical way, makes sense."
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