Ma, Royal Festival Hall, London

Built up then let down by Akram Khan's latest
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The Independent Culture

Akram Khan's latest work, Ma , is brilliantly accomplished and very irritating. Khan builds powerful dance sequences, but lets them tail off into posed dullness. He interrupts dances to tell stories, then interrupts those with artful hesitations. The confusion may be deliberate, but that doesn't make me like it.

Akram Khan's latest work, Ma , is brilliantly accomplished and very irritating. Khan builds powerful dance sequences, but lets them tail off into posed dullness. He interrupts dances to tell stories, then interrupts those with artful hesitations. The confusion may be deliberate, but that doesn't make me like it.

Ma is a collaboration, a boundary-crossing piece. It mixes dance and story, different ways of approaching a subject. The elements grate against each other. Khan breaks off his own dance to announce a story, then abandons it.

The texts are written by Hanif Kureishi. Riccardo Nova's score mixes Indian and western classical instruments, often going against the dancing. Mikki Kunttu's lighting goes from patterned shadows to blinding lights shone full into the audience's eyes.

As the piece goes on, the relationship between step and story gets clearer. We find out why Faheem Mazhar sang a song while hanging upside down: Khan's story is about hanging from a tree as a child. It also explains the first dance, with its weird repetition of awkward poses.

The dancers rush into place, and balance in a headstand, feet trailing almost to the floor. Khan's sense of stage space is wonderfully bold.

He regroups his dancers, turning the floor pattern round, breaking it up with quick, mercurial steps. The dance is reshaped as you watch, projected in new directions. But that basic headstand is ugly and inflexible. By repeating it, Khan stops his dance short.

Even so, there are lovely dance moments. The dancers move with fearless attack, throwing themselves into taut, off-balance turns, spinning to the floor and whirling up from it. Other steps reinvent Khan's own training in the Indian classical form Kathak. Hands arch, and pluck space; upper bodies are flexible, gracefully poised. Dancers and musicians also speak, chanting counts or patter syllables. One musician launches into a tongue-twisting solo, spoken coloratura, but fails to build rhythmic patterns.

As Khan tells his tree story, he breaks off for one really charming patter exchange, mimicking the speech patterns of inquisitive child and not-now-dear mother. Khan's precision gives this moment real warmth: it feels spontaneous because it's so well observed. Other interruptions are too winsome by half.

Khan is strongest when he drops symbolism and just dances. Between interruptions, those arching bodies and sweeping floor patterns give Ma real power.

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