Where it's at
Akram Khan is here and there, but always now.
Christina Paul, tour manager for the Akram Khan Company, gave fair warning when it came time to arrange a phone call to Dresden, Germany, with one of the world’s hottest choreographers. “He only has about 15 minutes,” we were told. “He may be happy to continue talking, but prepare accordingly.” As the point was to discuss bahok, Khan’s 2008 work that plays the Museum of Contemporary Art Friday 26 through Sunday 28, we decided to move our questions about working with three of our favorite women in music, film and dance—Kylie Minogue, Juliette Binoche and Sylvie Guillem—to the “if there’s time” part of the interview. There wasn’t.
He’ll joke about it being due to old age (he’s 35), but it’s Khan’s appetite for staying busy that led to bahok being his first work for an ensemble that doesn’t also feature him as a performer. The common reason dancer/choreographers pull themselves off the stage—to be a more effective directorial presence—was brought up as a factor, but what Khan tells us really motivated him to make the change was creative liberation. “When you’re in your show, you have to tour with it, and I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “I wanted to be in a position where I could go and create, either on other people or on myself as part of a duet.” And so he did: Bahok has enjoyed a successful world tour for the past two years, with which Khan has occasionally rendezvoused during breaks from projects like In-i, his dance-theater collaboration with Binoche. In addition, his clarity of vision and the electricity of his movement inventions—the very things that brought him into such high demand—were no longer being served by his popularity.
“When the choreographer is in the work, [the audience] starts to compare the dancer who is the choreographer to the rest of the dancers, and that presents a difficult situation. Because the psychology of the audience is to look at the choreographer when he’s on stage, I was becoming increasingly useless [to the work], and the more useless I became, the more I stood out.”
With Khan’s career presenting him with these kinds of questions, it’s not surprising that bahok has the themes it does. The title is Bengali for carrier (Khan is British-born of Bangladeshi descent), and bahok’s large set piece looks like the arrivals and departures timetable in a train station or airport. It looms over the stage like a storm cloud. The characters in the work have a layover between destinations, using movement and text to self-identify and forge emotional connections within a geographical purgatory. Bahok’s narrative structures were developed during discussions with the ensemble members about concepts of home and with Hanif Kureishi (British-born of Pakistani descent), a writer whose work traffics in discussion of race, nationalism and sexuality.
“I just went from South Africa for New Year’s, which was 30 [degrees Celsius], straight to Finland, which was minus 30. The temperature, the colors, the atmosphere had all completely changed by 60 degrees, and the only thing that remained consistent was my body. For me, my home is my body.”
Akram Khan Company finds itself in bahok at the Museum of Contemporary Art Friday 26 through Sunday 28.