Akram Khan, Sadler's Wells, London

Akram Khan proves you can't keep a good man down
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Even the best-laid plans ... Svapnagata, Sadler's Wells's season of Indian music and dance curated by Akram Khan and the composer Nitin Sawhney, was to have been topped and tailed by ambitious new works choreographed by Khan.

But Akram had a fall on stage in Paris late last month which left him with a hairline fracture to his shoulder and little chance of completing Gnosis, the contemporary piece that would open the two-week festival. As he told Monday's audience ruefully: "I'm used to talking with my body. I'm not used to my body talking back, and it's saying, hey, you're 35."

That maturity, though, serves Khan's art in other ways, not least in the calm assurance with which he dealt with the crisis. Instead of cancelling, he sweetly asked his audience to bear with him, then delivered a programme of traditional kathak so hot that it almost smoked, extending it with a classical Indian jam session that few in that audience will forget. The past 10 years may have seen Khan's star rise as a celebrity choreographer, hitching his talents to those of Juliette Binoche, Sylvie Guillem and Kylie Minogue. But his light burns brightest as an exponent of this highly strictured, centuries-old north-Indian form – I hesitate to write dance-form, because there is barely a moment in a kathak performance when you can say: this is the dance, that is the music. Even the dancer's ankles are encased in several hundred tiny bells that engage in susurrating conversation with tabla, sarod and voice.

The evening began, tellingly, with pure rhythm, in a powerfully controlled, frighteningly long crescendo from a drummer whose back view, in near-darkness, gave no clue that the drummer was female. What's more, she was Japanese, and so were the taiko drums Sanju Sahai was beating, with sticks, not her hands, as in Indian drumming. The presence of a cello among the familiar Indian instrumental line-up gave another clue to Khan's take on things. Classical, for him, doesn't exclude the possibility of playing with the details.

Otherwise the evening's most substantial work, Polaroid Feet, by Khan's friend Gauri Sharma Tripathi, was an object lesson in the way kathak works. After some undulating gestures and eddying vocals, their curls of melody evoking dry earth and spicy heat, the dance lets rip, elbows jabbing, eyes shooting daggers, hands flickering like cobra tongues, soles slapping, ankle bells furious – so furious that one of them detached itself and rolled to a stop nearby. The performance had an added tension for me thereafter, as I feared a second injury to Khan. But he must have clocked the hazard, since he coolly steered a path around it for the next hour and a half.

Though there is still a thrilling speed to Khan's travelling pirouettes, from which beads of silver sweat spray from his head like exclamation marks, their power has reduced a notch or two since Khan first came to notice in his twenties. Yet age has been fair-handed to this artist, and his poetry has deepened. In flashing snapshots of poses, snatched mid-virtuosic torrent, eloquent gestures describe a goddess, a flowing river, a palace, a warrior prince: another time, another place, but channelled through Khan, deliciously present.

Festival continues to 28 Nov (0844 412 4300). The deferred premiere of 'Gnosis' will take place in April