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ma (article first published : 2005-02-27)

Thanks indeed to the British Council for bringing South Bank Centre Associate Artist Akram Khan and his ten-member multi-national company to South Africa to perform at the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg earlier this week.

Last night, local contemporary dance lovers got to enjoy their impressive talents for one performance in Durban in the Playhouse Drama.

The start of ma tells it all. A dark stage. Two spotlights. One focuses on the player of the mridangam, essentially a South Indian instrument. This is interesting: the tabla traditionally accompanies kathak, the ancient North Indian style that underpins all of Khan’s work. In the other spotlight is a cellist - not a violinist, as one would expect. The anticipation is therefore of music with deep, resonant tones and this is certainly what we went on to enjoy … and a lot more besides!

ma is Akram Khan Company’s biggest production to date. It is described as an ambitious integration of dance, text and live music in which he explores issues around motherhood and the fragile connections between people and their land.

On the face of it, it’s about trees. A man remembers his early years when he used to hang upside down in a tree, hoping that perhaps all the complicated issues and questions that accompany a youngster’s path to adulthood would just fall out of his head and land on the ground. Then he could listen to their whispers through the cracks in the earth.

Performing upside down seems to be a strong focus of Akram Khan’s choreography, I can only assume that the company “stand” on their head a lot because the dancers seemed quite comfortable – and highly amusing in a delicious argumentative scene – working with the head lower than the major portion of the body.

A deeper interpretation of the work channels us to subjects of forced removals. Taking his reference from novelist Arundhati Roy’s essays on farmers forcibly ejected from their lands in India, Akram Kahn has incorporated text by acclaimed writer Hanif Kureishi into his thought-provoking work.

As one of my areas of activity involves voice production, I am always astounded at the technical skill required for Bol, the direct vocalisation of the rhythm used in Indian dance and music. These fascinating vocal dynamics form the musical score in much the same way as tonic sol-fa or notated music. There was an exhilarating sequence where Akram Kahn treated the audience with an amusing “conversation” with the two musicians.

The company is highly disciplined and fluidity of movement is the order of the day. There are moments of intense beauty, exquisite control and breathtaking balance. The faster sections are full of surprises with sudden turns and retreats. The dancers seem to fly effortlessly across the floor then halt and change direction almost without taking a breath.

The programme has a striking lighting design by Mikki Kunttu and is set to music by Riccardo Nova. Appearing in the work himself, Akram Khan has also assembled a veritable “league of nations” with collaborators from Britain, Finland, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, Slovakia, South Africa and Spain. His aim is to explore Indian and Western dance and music, shaping them to his own choreographic style.

ma is co-produced by the South Bank Centre (London), Singapore Arts Festival, Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Romaeuropa (Rome) 2004, The Vooruit (Gent), Tanzhaus nrw (Dusseldorf), Holland Festival (Amsterdam), Goteborg Dance and Theatre Festival and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York). Recorded music in the programme is by the Brussels-based Ictus Ensemble, known for its collaborations with renowned Belgian dance company, Rosas.

Let us hope that next time Akram Khan visits our shores, they will be able to give more than one performance in Durban. After last night, their worldwide fan club has considerably increased!

For further information visit www.akramkhancompany.net – Caroline Smart




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