The lord of the dance who made a real name for himself

Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan.  Photo: Richard Haughton
Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Photo: Richard Haughton
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Akram Khan is one of Britain’s – and the world’s – most popular contemporary dancers. Nick Ahad spoke to him.

Dance UK magazine recently printed an article by Jonathan Goddard, a dancer with Rambert, one of Britain’s leading contemporary dance companies.

In the piece Goddard complains about the anonymity contemporary dancers face and it is true that, unless you have an interest in the artform, you are unlikely to be able to name any dancers from the field.

It is strange to think Akram Khan might belong in this group, unknown by the wider public.

The British-Bangladeshi, Leeds-trained artist has become one of the contemporary dance world’s most famous practitioners and is one of the UK’s most successful exports in the field.

A South Bank Show was dedicated to Khan in 2002, he’s won awards galore. Channel 4 recently screened the documentary Homeland, which followed Khan back to Bangladesh to capture the creation of his most recent piece of work, Desh.

He has danced at the National Theatre with Juliette Binoche, collaborated with Nitin Sawhney, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Hanif Kureishi. He also choreographed part of Kylie’s 2006 world tour.

He also reveals, when we speak as he heads into his London company’s headquarters, that he is about to collaborate with Danny Boyle on the opening ceremony of the Olympics – and a national newspaper, just this week, said of him: “He is now one of the most important British dance-makers, with an international reputation and a substantial body of work.”

To list all that, which only really scratches the surface of what Khan has achieved, and consider that he is one of the dancers performing in the ‘anonymity’ Goddard describes, is strange.

“A few years ago, I became really aware that we hadn’t performed in Yorkshire,” says Khan, who is performing his solo piece Desh at Sadler’s Wells this autumn.

“So I got someone from the company to call a big theatre up there and the response was that they had never heard of me. My company wanted to push it and get us in, it made me a little sad, but I didn’t want to put the effort in if the theatres didn’t want us.

“At the time we were touring internationally, so it wasn’t like we needed to come to Yorkshire and bring the work.”

The reason Khan was particularly saddened that the name of his company didn’t mean more here was because Yorkshire played a significant role in the development of the dancer who combines traditional Indian Kathak style dance with contemporary dance. He graduated from the Leeds-based Northern School of Contemporary Dance in 1998, with fond memories, he says, of the Chapeltown area where the school is based.

It is this association that brings Khan, in spirit, back to Leeds tonight.

Although he never normally allows others to recreate his work, Khan has allowed a section of his critically acclaimed work Vertical Road to be performed by NSCD. The 20-minute piece will be performed by Verve, the school’s post-graduate performance company.

“I have been saying for four years that I would let the graduates perform a piece. When I was there the principal, Gurmit (Hukam) gave me enormous support and from the day I left, I wanted to keep the promise to him that I would bring a piece back,” says Khan.

Although Hukam recently left the school as principal, Khan has stayed true to his word and Vertical Road has been brought to the school as part of the New Worlds partnership an Imove- funded project. Imove is the Legacy Trust UK’s cultural programme for Yorkshire and part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Steps towards world fame

Khan’s dance career began when he took up Kathak when he was seven. Although a fan of Michael Jackson, he was already combining classical with contemporary.

When he was 14, he was cast in Peter Brook’s production of Mahabharata, touring the world between 1987 and 1989 and appearing in the televised version in 1988.

Following graduation from NSCD in 1998, within two years he launched the Akram Khan Company, launching at the Edinburgh Festival.

He became the first non-musician appointed associate artist at the Southbank Centre and is currently an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells.

Verve: Riley Theatre, NSCD Feb 24, 25. Hull Truck, Feb 28, Bradford Alhambra Apr 25, 26. Details at www.nscd.ac.uk/performances