Akram Khan

This spring, Sadler’s Wells celebrates 100 years since Stravinsky’s influential ballet, The Rite of Spring, with work from choreography’s current golden boy, Akram Khan

Sacrifice is the central theme of Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), and it is this idea that acclaimed British choreographer Akram Khan chooses to explore in his new work, iTMOi (in the mind of igor), for Sadler’s Wells’ Stravinsky season. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, Sadler’s Wells has commissioned three events inspired by his work. A String of Rites includes productions from Michael Keegan Dolan, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre and the Akram Khan Company. The season will culminate with RIOT Offspring in June, which sees around 80 non-professional participants of varying ages and abilities exploring their own perceptions of rites, rituals and riots.

Composed by Igor Stravinsky for the 1913 season of Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring was commissioned by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. First performed on 29 May 1913 at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the work has become renowned for causing a near-riot in the audience. Theatregoers were dismayed by the distinctly un-balletic nature of the work: the piece begins with a bassoon solo and uses ostinato patterns, drum beats and unharmonic sounds. The music is rooted in Russian folk traditions and the ballet presents paganistic rituals, ending with the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death in front of the elders.

Although the original score can be considered savage and cruel, it is just as possible that the opening night riot was as much a response to Nijinsky’s unconventional choreography as to the music. Nijinsky’s dancers had turned-in feet and stamped and jumped around the stage, pounding the floor. It was likely that the combination of the two provoked such controversy: together, Stravinsky and Nijinsky managed to subvert notions of beauty and ballet and create a passionate and primal piece of work.

It is with these ideas of subversion in mind that Akram Khan approached his new work iTMOi. Working with an original score by Sadler’s Wells’ Associate Artist, Nitin Sawhney, Khan uses an international cast of 11 dancers to create a production that plays around the concepts of sacrifice and subversion as they relate to The Rite of Spring. He explains his interest in the subject: “I am fascinated by how human beings are capable of turning everything into a paradox: meaning turns into absurdity, justice into injustice, freedom into bondage.”

The notions of freedom and bondage are especially pertinent to Khan’s work: he is intrigued by the relationship between the two and how it is possible to find one within the other. This seeming paradox is common within dance, which often adheres to strict form and discipline while at the same time allowing great freedom of expression and movement. Khan explains it best in regard to his classical training: “Classical imprisons me; contemporary frees me.” Here, “imprisonment” is not necessarily a negative state; the structure offers clear boundaries to work within, which in turn can lead to a freedom of sorts. Khan emphasises that it is not that there are no constraints in contemporary dance, but rather that with contemporary work you create your own parameters.

This seems equally true in relation to The Rite of Spring. In many senses Stravinsky’s musical composition is very rigid, with complex layering and repetitive chords, but his complete disavowal of any prior musical traditions and his refusal to be led by melody mean that the piece is also remarkably avant-garde and free. Khan suggests that it is, in fact, the breakdown of technique and structure that often leads to this revelation: “For me it’s about vulnerability. You only speak the truth when you are most vulnerable and have everything to lose. When your body’s at that point of extremity, when the technique isn’t holding, that’s when the truth really comes out from within you.” It is that moment of transcendence that makes dance so poetic.

Stravinsky’s detailed patterns were a strong influence on iTMOi. Khan asserts: “It’s how Stravinsky saw narratives – through patterns.” When developing the production, Khan made the decision to use Stravinsky’s life and work as his starting point rather than to aim simply to recreate The Rite of Spring. He references Pina Bausch’s seminal 1975 production as having fulfilled that duty to its best potential already. Her version saw the stage covered with peat, and explored the interactions between men and women. With this in mind, he chose to pursue the narrative of Stravinsky’s work, rather than just creating new choreography for the score.

It is fitting that Akram Khan’s tribute to Stravinsky should focus on narrative: this is a fundamental aspect of his previous work and he is a storyteller at heart. Khan’s background in traditional Indian Kathak dance informs this element of his practice. Kathak is an intensely narrative-driven form, stemming as it does from a community of artists known as Kathakars – storytellers who would narrate epic tales and histories through music and dance. Khan’s interest in storytelling is also apparent in his choice of projects: his previous collaborators have included Juliette Binoche and Hanif Kureishi among others.

The approach to story is what sets Khan’s work apart from that of other choreographers. He looks at how best to express the narrative of a piece: “I think it changes with each piece that I do. I try to search for the right way of telling that story. With Zero Degrees (2005) or DESH (2011), I used words, images and the body, but with Vertical Road (2010) there were no words; it was just visual.” This year Khan’s search to discover the best form in which to communicate his message finds him moving into the film world. The end of 2013 will see the intended release of the feature film Desert Dancer. Directed by Richard Raymond and starring Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie and Tom Cullen, the film follows the true story of Afshin Ghaffarian, who started a dance company in Iran, where dance is illegal. Khan was responsible for choreographing the movement in the film and he speaks about the importance of dance, not just in the film but in our lives: “Not only is the story an inspiring one about the struggle to free oneself from a political regime through dance, but it is also the very freedom we all have a right to have, regardless of what country, what nationality or what culture we come from.”

Khan also mentions a desire to film his intensely personal solo show, DESH, at some future point. DESH was an international hit and explored Khan’s connection with his parents’ motherland, moving between Britain and Bangladesh. In 2012, the piece toured globally and won the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Last year was a high point for Akram Khan, who also choreographed work for the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and this year looks set to match it, with iTMOi, the return of DESH and the release of Desert Dancer. The experience of choreographing for the Olympics altered the way Khan approaches his work. Despite working with over 50 dancers on stage, he found that the large venue dramatically changed the perspective of numbers: “It was an extraordinary journey of discovering huge parameters of scale.” This influenced the way that he now looks at scale, even in an ordinary theatrical space. For iTMOi, he says: “I’m in a small theatre but I want to exaggerate the extremity of it more because I got a taste for it in the stadium.”

With each new platform and collaboration, Akram Khan’s self-created contemporary “boundaries” get broader and more expansive, offering the artist ever more freedom to create unique, groundbreaking work. If all of his achievements from 2012 inform his productions in 2013, it will be an outstanding year for dance.

iTMOi (in the mind of igor) will have its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 28 May and runs until 1 June. www.sadlerswells.com.

Bryony Byrne