Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan has combined classical Indian and contemporary dance to create a new form of storytelling.
Akram Khan is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer, known for his work traversing Indian Kathak and contemporary dance styles.
Born in London, England, in 1974 into a Bangladeshi family, he started training in Kathak at age 7 and was cast in several major touring productions before the age of 15. He studied at De Montfort University and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, then danced under famed choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
He founded Akram Khan Company in 2000 and presented his first full-length work, Kaash, in 2002. The company created a section of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and continues to tour innovative, genre-blending productions across Europe and beyond. Khan is also an acclaimed choreographer of ballet, most notably his 2016 version of Giselle for the English National Ballet.
He was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006 for Zero Degrees and won in 2012 for DESH. In 2005 he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, one of the UK’s highest honors.
Akram Khan grew up with his hands full as a child who worked in his family’s curry house in Wimbledon, preparing food, serving tables, taking orders. He hated it.
Akram Khan: I had nightmares that I’m gonna end up working in the restaurant, taking over my dad’s business.
There wasn’t an easy way out. Akram’s family lived in an apartment above the restaurant, alongside their staff. His father wanted him to get serious about the family business, but Akram wasn’t interested. He wanted to dance and didn’t hide it. This made his father furious but his mother was more supportive.
Khan: I grew up with a father who used to whisper to this ear as a mantra every morning, not every morning but most mornings, that “You are a failure, you’ll achieve nothing.” And in the other ear, my mother would whisper, “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. And those who say you will fail are the ones that are afraid of your true ability.”
Akram’s family hoped that he would become more Bangladeshi but his heroes were Western: Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin. Age seven, to bring him closer to Bangladeshi culture, Akram’s mother sent him for lessons in Kathak, the classical dance form of Northern India. Young Akram excelled, and by the time he was 13, he was traveling the world as a performer in Peter Brooks’ Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of the epic Hindu myth Mahabharata.
Khan: I was a little bit nervous, but I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t a trained actor. So I wasn’t acting, I was just being present. So I didn’t have the skills and knowledge of that, but I knew how to…I was very comfortable on stage, because of dance. It was quite a life changing experience, I have to say.
After high school Khan left the family business. And by turning his back on the restaurant, he says that he rejected his father and his culture. He went to study contemporary dance at De Montfort University in Leicester in 1994 and began to blend his Kathak training with Western dance. He soon gained acclaim for his fusion of styles, and in 2000 started the Akram Khan Company. Finally Khan was in a world of his own making and with it came time that was under his control.
Khan: We’re living in a time where two approaches to time are clashing. One is the Western time, the Christianized time, the manmade time, the industrial time, the clock time. And then you have the other approach to time, which is Eastern time, spiritual time, life and death time, sacred time, ritualistic time. So in a sense, what dance allowed me to be aware of and conscious of is the importance of the spiritual time, the slowing down of time.
And along with that time came space to reflect on the culture he had left behind. In the company’s early years, Khan performed new versions of tales he had been told as a child, such as Hindu creation stories in 2002’s Kaash. By 2011, the work became more personal. Khan created DESH, an homage to his father’s past in Bangladesh and their shared search for belonging in England. Far from becoming the failure his father had predicted, Akram Khan has become a pillar of contemporary dance, well known beyond his field. He performed at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and began choreographing for English National Ballet in 2014.
Khan: It was really interesting to experience creating work on a Western classical ballet form. The difference between classical and modern or contemporary is, in classical you’re given the rules, the boundaries. Those boundaries, the moment you step outside it, that’s wrong. And that applies to Indian classical or Western classical. The other thing is repetition to achieve a sense of perfection. You practice, you practice, you practice. You don’t achieve perfection. But the aim is to achieve perfection. The intention is to achieve perfection, that’s important. In contemporary there are boundaries, but you make those boundaries.
AJC: Right, they’re self-imposed.
Khan: They’re self-imposed. The other thing is the aim is not to achieve perfection, the aim is to reveal imperfection, the human. Classical is leading towards the God, contemporary for me is revealing the human.
And Khan has been well rewarded for sharing his humanity on stage with eight Critics’ Circle awards and a prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in dance. But he doesn’t see his success as a way to prove his family wrong or to please them.
Khan: I make the work for me, I’m the audience. 1,500 versions of me are watching the show if there’s 1,500 seats. When I approach any work, I don’t make it for a particular culture. What’s important for me is does it move me emotionally? If it moves me emotionally, then I feel it will move everyone because we all know, have experienced what it feels to feel grief, or love or happiness. So those are universal elements that lie across all boundaries and so I’m always in search of that.
By uniting the two cultures he was once expected to choose between, Akram Khan has created a unique language to tell his own stories through movement. And as he began to bring this to the stage, his relationship with his father changed.
Khan: When I started doing well, I think something switched in him. He’s very proud of me. I mean, to the point where he would call my office and said, “I need a few tickets for my friends, complimentary tickets.” And so we’re doing the dress run, and in the middle of the dress run I’m looking around and going, “This is very familiar. I feel very familiar.” And then I realized it was 200 people, who were all from our street so he had invited the whole community. So he’s proud and he shows it in different ways, I would say.
And while Khan’s mother has always been supportive of him, she has struggled with some of his dancing. While it’s still shaped by Kathak, it’s a far cry from the dances he performed as a little boy. But as Akram Khan has pushed traditional boundaries on stage and in his life, his parents have grown with him. And over the years, he’s grown to appreciate the stories they shared with him as a child.
Khan: You know, my parents came to London in the early ’70s and they’d just lived through a war, a civil war. They weren’t running away, but in a way they did want to start afresh in peace. I think the first thing that tends to happen generally with immigrant families is they bring this photograph of them in their head of the last image that they have of Bangladesh. And in that photo is their value systems, and they move to London and the first thing they do is they start downloading that photo to the next generation. We may not be conscious of it but it’s living through us. I became the conduit, if you like. They didn’t want the children to forget what they had lived through.
And try as he might in his youth, Khan hasn’t forgotten what his parents passed down and has honored them through dance, but it’s taken its toll on his body. Now age 47, old for a working dancer, Khan will soon retire from full length performances. In 2021, he gave his final solo performance in the United States at the Kennedy Center. In 2022 he will complete his final world tour as a dancer in Xenos, the story of a colonial first World War Indian soldier.
Akram Khan’s next chapter will see him fully dedicating his time to choreography and to parenting his two children, eight year old Sayuri and six year old Kenzo, and keeping alive in them an awareness of their family heritage.
Khan: I don’t have any expectations of do I want them to become this way or that way? I want them to follow their hearts, of course, but at the same time, I also want them to know the journey that, why they have arrived.
The spirit of Akram Khan’s youthful rebellion and cross-cultural upbringing is ever-present in him. And he understands that his stories, like those of his parents and grandparents, will help shape his own children’s lives, knowing that before long, they too will discover their place in the world.