Akram Khan may be trained in classical kathak dance, but he is not a classicist. Born in Wimbledon to Bangladeshi immigrants, he grew up mixing his kathak training with moves from disco and pop on the carpet of his dad’s restaurant. Aged 13, he joined the cast of Peter Brook’s eight-hour production of the Mahabharata, performing the sweeping Sanskrit epic to critical adulation around the world.
When he returned home he found himself obsessed with furthering his art, skipping school to practice. Each morning he would wave goodbye to his parents before changing out of his uniform and dancing all day in the garage. He got away with it for a year, only being discovered when they turned up to bemused teachers at a school parents evening. In his words, “I always wanted to dedicate all I had to my art. I’ve talked about this with classical dancers - we feel that it can never really leave you”. Later he studied Contemporary Dance at De Montfort University in Leicester.
Akram’s subsequent career has seen him delve into a dazzling range of fusions, garnering wide acclaim along the way. He has collaborated with musicians, sculptors, and novelists, and filmed with Juliette Binoche and Kylie Minogue. He performed at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and for the past three years has curated Darbar’s dance festivals at Sadler’s Wells.
Now retired from full-length solo performance, he continues to lead his eponymous dance company. He summarises his approach to the creative process: “To me there are two ways of creating - you can push the walls of a room from within, or pull from the outside. I’ve always been on the outside, drawing from all styles that catch my eye...classicists [push] from the inside of their rooms...Traditional forms can evolve without losing their core”.
"I feel there’s something universal about narratives from ancient Indian history - the grand themes, the shared myths, the flawed deities. Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals. And empathy is extraordinarily important - facial expressions and subtle body language communicate so much. I feel we’re drifting away from empathy in today’s world, and dance invites us to return to it."
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