If anybody thought that the opening moments of Kaash were too exciting to be sustained, they were wrong. If anybody thought that Kaash – Hindi for "if", like Kipling's most famous poem – sounded just too abstrusely foreign, they were also wrong. And if anybody thought that 27-year-old Akram Khan, the Royal Festival Hall choreographer-in-residence, had overstretched himself by entering into an ambitious collaboration for his company's first full-evening piece, then Kaash emerges as an equal and magnificent association of forms. The dance, the coloured projections by the Turner Prize-winner Anish Kapoor, the score by Nitin Sawhney and the lighting by Aideen Malone mesh together to hit you head-on and resound in your mind long after.
Massive drumming and forceful zigzags of silhouetted movement explode into the darkened silence to start the piece, along with a black rectangle on red, projected on to the back, as monumental as a Mark Rothko canvas. The sensational effects, though, pile on: there is Akram Khan catapulting from the side in unravelling moves, followed by his four co-dancers; or there's the cast lining up in a horizontal unison line that breaks into counterpoint; or the stage dimmed and everything slowed down, giving space for mystery to breathe.
You don't need to know that the piece was inspired by Hinduism and its parallels with modern physics, or by idea of the god Shiva, the creator and destroyer who dances his cosmic dance on the globe of the world. You can just enjoy the canny variety of pace, sound and pattern. The percussion builds powerful layers, or sounds briefly like cracks of distant thunder, or yields to waves of melody and voices that seem transmitted across universes. The colours shift, now grey, now blue, now beige, but always with the same black rectangle suspended like a black hole. The effect is so richly theatrical that by the end you feel as if you have lived a whole drama, even though there is no narrative.
Trained in both contemporary dance and Kathak, the ancient classical form of northern India, Khan's mission is to fuse the two. But where other modernising choreographers tend to impoverish Indian classical dance by hammering out its curlicued beauty, Khan manages the tricky balance of forging a new language that looks updated but loses none of its old density. He streamlines, but he also extends. He returns to Kathak's traditional spins and arms, but fragments them like retrieved memories, or tilts or otherwise transmutes them. He laces in new movement, introducing floor-hugging rolls and crouches, and variously etched poses and group patterns. The dancers hit the beat of the drums as in Kathak, but just as often they rebelliously weave around it.
They move beautifully, even if Khan is the one who constantly draws the eye. He dances the way he choreographs, with a weighty, punchy muscularity that alternates with sudden eruptions into dazzling speed, his shapes as deft and sharp as razors. If (to return to the word) some of us had queried whether Indian classical dance could have a future as something other than an exquisite museum art, then Kaash tells us that yes, it does, definitely.
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