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Flash Review, 11-17: Riffing on Kathak
For Akram Khan, the Road to Jazz at Lincoln Center Starts in Europe

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- Akram Khan, whose "Ma" opened last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt here en route to a Spring 2006 gig at co-producer Jazz at Lincoln Center, is a choreographer in search of a mentor.

Khan's schtick -- I'd heard before this first viewing of his work -- often involves fusing Kathak with more Western contemporary dance vocabularies. But why the rush? Notwithstanding their exotic indexes -- weaving wrists and fingers, I mean -- the lexicon utilized on his ensemble here employs mostly release technique with some Jiu-Jitsu tossed in, but at such high velocity -- in the first half, anyway -- that it leaves little time for reflection by either the spectators or the performers. Reviewing an earlier work, "Kaash," last year, Aimee Ts'ao wrote in these pages: "I am impressed by the speed and clarity of the dancers' execution and by the development of the choreography, going from simple unison to a canon form and then introducing variations on the theme. However, I find it all a little too neatly laid out and lacking in human feeling." Little seems to have changed since.

Khan appears unable to resist the speed trap. If he owes his traditional roots to Kathak masters, he seemed -- at least in the first part of this 70-minute work -- to owe his timing to David "Faster Pussycat! Thrill! Thrill!" Parsons. This was evident most cloyingly in the relationship between the choreography and the music. In Shantala Shivalingappa's recent Paris concert, reviewed here, choreographer/dancer Shivalingappa's by-play with B.P. Haribabu's musical rhythms was a genuine conversation. Sean Curran, working with similiar music in his 1999 "Symbolic Logic", sought, successfully, a geometrical core to Sheila Chandra's "Speaking in Tongues" compositions. But Khan uses BC Manjunath's accelerated excursions in the same vein strictly superficially, striving to make his dancers go as fast as the 120 bmp music. They can and they do -- they all look to be about 17, and their tireless dancing reflects this -- but to what end?

As for his attempt at choreographic fusion, except on his own performing body, Khan's post-modern elaboration of this ancient language doesn't really work. The different forms are combined, but on anyone but himself, they have difficulty blending. The other dancers are not so facile as is Khan with the Kathak; it's not ingrained in their bodies, and it shows.

Khan begins to show more promise in the second half of "Ma," when he tries to use this hybrid means to the traditional end of telling a story. The story here -- he tells us literally, I mean by speaking -- is traced to his hanging upside down from a tree in his parents garden when he was a kid, in the hopes that all the things that perturbed young Akram would fall out of his head to the earth, which would respond with solutions. Movement-wise, this theme is cleverly developed on and enacted by two three-legged (one leg remains in the air at about 10 to 6 o'clock) interpreters, Eulalia Ayguade and Nikoleta Rafaelisova. Eventually they hobble close to the lip of the stage where, in tandem from their upside-down perspective and facing the audience, they relate the tale of a fallow woman whose prayers to G-d were answered by seeds which she planted and which eventually grew into trees. When she told G-d he still hadn't answered her prayers for children, he explained that the trees were her infants, because she cared for them in the same way.

Besides the chuckles -- perhaps all that blood rushing to their heads allowed them to induce a similar delirium in the spectators -- this section, coming close to the end, provides the evening's only real weight aside from Khan's own dancing. It's a promising indication that at least in his head, the choreographer is working on something serious; now, perhaps, he needs a mentor who can help him resist the side shows and stay on task.

Akram Khan's "Ma" continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt through Saturday. For more information, please visit the theater's Web site.


PS: Before I even reached the theater on the banks of the Seine last night, they started appearing: The "cherche place" signs. In the US, you'll encounter the desperate last-minute ticket-searchers for Pina Bausch and the occasional ballet evening, perhaps; here it's a regular occurrence. Bausch, Khan, De Keersmaeker, Merce, Sasha Waltz -- all produce sell-out houses and stranded procrastinators. Why is dance here an easier draw? One reason is the price of a ticket, which makes it more accessible -- and a worthwhile risk -- to all. If I wanted to go to the Joyce Theater in New York tonight, I'd pay $42 for the privilege -- not including the $5 service charge for buying online. If I had to pay for Akram Khan last night, it would have cost me about half that.

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