Even recovering from injury, Akram Khan is a virtuoso dancer. His arms open in a fluid ripple, a dazzling pattern of curves and angles as he unbends at shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers. He's both sinuous and geometrically precise. Gnosis starts with a display of the Indian classical form Kathak, and ends with an amazing fragment in contemporary style. Twisting in the spotlight, Khan becomes a glowing, trembling blur.
Khan's Gnosis opened the Sadler's Wells Svapnagata season, a two-week festival of Indian dance and music. Svapnagata, which means "dreaming" in Sanskrit, has been curated by Khan and composer Nitin Sawhney. The two will work together on the season's final show, Confluence.
Collaboration has been an important part of Khan's contemporary style. Recent works include high-profile partnerships with artists from other fields: the ballerina Sylvie Guillem, the sculptor Antony Gormley, the actress Juliette Binoche. Khan's own early training was in the Indian classical form Kathak, which he still performs in strict style.
In the event, Gnosis was almost wholly Kathak. Khan injured his shoulder three weeks ago, derailing rehearsals for the evening's contemporary section. "Dancers speak through their bodies," Khan explained. "This time, mine spoke back. It said, 'Hey, you're 35 now'."
Instead, he danced an extended Kathak recital, the planned solos extended with a jam session. Khan's timing is brilliant. He can linger over the curves of a movement, then snap into a final position, eyes and fingers pointing a new direction. There's a touch of tension in his neck – not surprisingly, given his injury – but the carriage of his head is still grandly confident.
The solo Polaroid Feet was choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, with precise arms to match the footwork. Sri Pratap Pawar's Tarana is more flowing, Khan's upper body twisting. Between numbers, he introduces and explains the dances, with a few anecdotes to move things along. (Unwrapping his ankle bells, he describes seeing the quick changes in one of Kylie Minogue's stage shows.)
For the jam session, he and his six musicians – including a cellist and Japanese taiko drummer, as well as traditional Indian performers – swap rhythms and phrases. The rhythms are extraordinary. They start with 16-count phrases, tapped out on drums or in patter syllables. Then they work them into loops, patterns overlapping, synchronising, separating again.
There were also numbers without dancing. Faheem Mazhar sung with soft flexibility, while the three drummers created an intricate percussion piece, with layers of different sounds.
Khan often joins in with just his feet, drumming his heels lightly enough to make his ankle bells shake. Or he spins on the spot, whirling and stamping. In one sequence, he reaches up to the spotlight, again and again. Each time, he seems to freeze at full stretch, a held moment before he sinks back down.
When Gnosis returns to Sadler's Wells in April, it will include a contemporary section. For this evening, Khan had recovered in time to create one extraordinary new scene. The piece is inspired by Gandhari, a character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, who blindfolds herself when she marries a blind king. Khan's scene shows her death in a forest fire.
Becoming Gandhari, the sturdy Khan turns himself into a frail, shaking figure, moving with frightened uncertainty. The tremors become shakes, his whole body juddering, his head plunging up and down. He looks buffeted by outside forces, shaken against his will – and shaken so fast that he goes out of focus. In his saffron silk robe, he is a flickering golden image, like a flame.
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