"Let me tell you a story," says Akram Khan in seductive tones well into his extraordinary new work, Ma. But the huge audience is captivated before hearing a word of it. The opening image has already spoken volumes; Faheem Mazhar, barely visible in the darkness, suspended upside down, a stream of evocative Sufi song pouring from his mouth.
Ma is about Khan himself and his boyhood game of hanging from a tree asking the earth questions, then putting his ear close to the ground in search of answers. It also develops his personal stylistic fusion of ancient classical northern Indian dance kathak (which, conveniently, also means story) with contemporary movement.
Words by Hanif Kureishi and a striking score by Riccardo Nova add a further dimension to Ma, and Mikki Kunttu's stunning lighting design provides stark but also subtle contrast. On one side of the stage a percussionist beats the mridangam (a south Indian drum), while on the other, Natalie Rozario plucks a vast range of sounds from her cello.
The dancers also chant, while blasts of recorded music by the Ictus Ensemble later add a pounding pulse, a thumping heartbeat, or blood coursing through veins perhaps.
Ma means mother as well as earth, and nurture is in the air as Khan's Anglo-Asian ensemble of eight dancers occupy the stage on their own for the first quarter of an hour or so, a warm-up act of dazzling virtuosity. In earth-coloured tunics and trousers they step with impeccably detailed precision through Khan's highly disciplined choreography, moving with greater speed and agility than seems humanly possible.
When Khan emerges from the shadows, you don't know whether to watch his feet, his hands, his head or his darting body; everything is going at once in a surge of bravura sequences. Yet in a trice, the gestures are stilled, the frenzy stopped. He plays ingeniously with the rhythm of the music, weaving around it, interacting with the musicians, and indulging in some humorous play-acting with one rebellious dancer who has an obvious talent for stand-up.
Two female dancers stand on their hands and one leg, their spare legs stuck in the air as if it is their feet which are conversing, while they tell a story of the childless woman whose seeds turn into saplings and finally trees. When the company turns into this forest, each body becomes a supple trunk, each hand takes exquisite leafy shape. A dancer is lifted, and in the shadows it look as if she is levitating. Another is carried like a lifeless puppet, suddenly jumping back into existence.
In solos, duets and group patterns as earthbound crabs gliding silently sideways, or performing extravagant leaps and bounds, rolling, writhing, spinning, stamping or silently slipping the dancers' beautifully articulated, geometric motions tell their own tale or kathak.
The Akram Khan Dance Company performs 'Ma' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London from 30 November till 5 December. 0870 401 8181Reuse content