How We Met: Akram Khan & Antony Gormley

'He's very down to earth – as well as being a living god'
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Akram Khan, 33, is a professional dancer and choreographer. Born in London to a family of Bangladeshi origin, he has an MBE for services to dance. He lives in Wimbledon with his wife.

Antony turned up at a show I'd done with the sculptor Anish Kapoor and was very complimentary. He was infatuated with the concept of the body and mythology. We met at the after-show party and the music was very loud. He was bending to speak to me and had a strong voice, but I wished he was shorter – I think he's taller than six foot – because I couldn't really hear him, and was just watching his lips move. I'd wait until his mouth was still and then respond. It was a funny encounter, but he was giving off a real warmth so I got his name, looked online, and realised he was an amazing sculptor. When he was talking to me he didn't say – or maybe he did and I didn't hear him.

I called him two years later to see if he'd be interested in collaborating on Zero Degrees, a project I was working on with [the dancer] Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and [the composer] Nitin Sawhney. Antony never said yes; he just went into it.

He really took Larbi and I somewhere else. His role was pivotal. Every once in a while, we'd be in the middle of a mini-show for people in the rehearsal studio and he'd turn up with a huge structure, oblivious. He'd dump it right in the centre saying, "Have a look at this then," see the audience and say, "Ah. Am I disturbing you?" He has a wonderfully charming quality.

The spine of Zero Degrees is an account of a journey I took eight years ago from the border of Bangladesh into India, and then on the train to Calcutta. It's about the in-between space between two things. Antony hooked on to the story straight away, because he found it personal but universal – we all know what it means to be at borders. He said, "I want to make copies of you" and I said, "What about 10 copies of me and 10 of Larbi?"

The process of being moulded was an experience. First he creates a gooey substance which solidifies very quickly. What's intense is that when the material starts to solidify, you can do nothing – it's like being in a coffin.

Our first rehearsal was in Belgium and Antony brought a copy of me on the Eurostar. He had to stuff what looked like a dead body in a dustbin liner through the X-ray machine. We played with the dummy for ages that day, and Antony was really observing; I think he was inspired to see his creation being explored by others in a physical way.

Antony Gormley, 57, is a sculptor who uses the human body as a theme throughout his work. He has three children and lives with his wife, the painter Vicken Parsons, in Camden.

When Akram called to invite me to be involved with his project, we met on a bench out the back of the Royal Festival Hall. At that moment, he seemed to be inviting me to make a very large tree that he could hang upside down from and I was trying to say politely that I didn't think it was a very good idea.

In the end he didn't need the tree, but he did tell me about his visit to Bangladesh; he'd memorised a bit of dialogue about the distinction between aliveness and deadness and the uncertainty about what makes something into an object. I think that's a sculptural problem too: in a way, every art object is a still, silent thing that lacks what we have, which is freedom of movement, the opportunity to act. I was very interested in how it could give the movement of dance a polarity by introducing a still, silent dummy.

Akram knows exactly what he wants and there was a moment when I felt that I was being brought in as a tradesman, and I wasn't doing it quite in the way that had been ordered, but we got over that quite quickly. The truth is I'm much more interested in making structures. I don't care whether they're conceptual, physical or temporal. I was certainly not prepared to simply provide a frame in which action could take place. It was very important to me that this collaboration was the result of us all going to places we wouldn't have gone on our own. I really enjoyed watching the emergent series of dance sequences.

Akram derives his potency from a deep tap root into ancient tradition and Kathak dance, but he's not afraid of exposing it and recombining it with the dispersed field of post-modernity, and that's very brave. Between us there was a mutual recognition of wanting to test barriers, of not being afraid to jump out of the box.

The funny thing is that because he was born in this country, his first journey to find his roots was to a culture that in a way his parents had emigrated from. My interest in Eastern philosophy has been about trying to escape from the traditions I had been brought up with.

I'll never forget his wedding. It was absolutely crazy – we were dancing to Bollywood and hip hop and he was so spontaneously part of the mad crowd. It was nice to see a body trained to do spectacular things in specific ways actually dancing in a collective madness way. I think he's very down to earth, Akram – as well as being a living god. *

'Zero Degrees' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300; from 16 to 20 October