Akram Khan: Between Baggage and Nihility
New York City Center
Tackling questions of being and knowing is a bit like a circus act. Like tightrope walkers, choreographers must be prepared to wobble, bend, contort and above all, have an indelible sense of balance and purpose, lest they plummet to their demise through a net of trite observations and half-truths.
Akram Khan, a choreographer whose vision is both grounded and deliciously stratospheric, engages this challenge head on, face forward, toes poised to the next tine of an already thin rope in each of his two evening-length pieces, Bahok and Zero Degrees, recently performed at New York’s City Center.
Set in a fictitious transportation hub whose information board cycles through symbols and a series of frustrating edicts and subtitled translations, Bahok weaves Khan’s quietly violent movement and exquisitely abstracted score (composed by Nitin Sawhney) with his keen eye for the delicate intricacies of human behavior, speech and rhythm. Zero Degrees takes a more minimalist but no less effect approach, chronicling the struggles and discovery of two dancers experimenting with their relationship to each other, space and themselves.
In both pieces, carefully scripted dialogue—which at times is introspective, conversational, hysterical, persecuted, frustrated and silenced—flows seamlessly in and out of modes of movement and vocabulary. His dancers, whose individual styles underscore the stories their bodies labor to tell, pay equal care to vocal and physical movements, eliminating the question of whether one mode of expression is superior to the other. In fact, as frustration mounts, it is clear that at times, both fall short.
Like an adept ringleader, Khan’s choreography is a cohesive amalgamation of many influences and styles. Simultaneously sharp and smooth, reactionary and fluid, his dancers move as if rotating around a central axis at the base of the solar plexus, turning circles around themselves and space. His solos and duets ooze with raw emotion, depicting a frustration that can be both fluid and violent, longing that can be smooth and languid, proximity that can express solidarity, fear, revulsion or tenderness, just by altering spacing a fraction of an inch and that time and emotion are no more linear than memories. Khan’s adept use of text, both spoken and written, also reminds the audience that a visual vocabulary is as disparate to those watching as one language is to another—no two people ever see the same thing, and something almost always gets lost in translation. It is this ability to walk on both sides of descriptive metaphor that keep’s Khan’s choreography centered.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Khan’s exquisite grasp of dramatic progression, aided most successfully by his musical choices. Whether live or recorded, music in Khan’s pieces is treated like an additional dancer, alternately cajoling and caressing, bombarding and supporting those it carries through language and movement, fostering powerful, pulsing, crashing exploration and providing an undercurrent to the dialogue that doesn’t seem to be able to connect us (or at least, not in any way that feels satisfactory.)
If Khan is both tightrope walker and ringleader, then his dancers excel in the part of trapeze artists—effortlessly soaring between safety and surrender, teetering on the edge of reason with physical confessions and verbal arabesques. Whether through a humorous duet between a perplexed man and a nearby sleeping stranger (the oblivion to her trespass highlighting a false intimacy we share with strangers, but tacitly agree to ignore), or a solo of quiet perplexity mounting to desperation between a young man and a mannequin, each movement, each solo of reckless abandon and ensemble of percussive force brings us deep into a world that we have all experienced, but may not have had the opportunity to dissect with such precision, tenderness and acute balance.
Both Zero Degrees and Bahok showcase individual watermarks of movement that coalesce to form a cohesive kaleidescope of imagery, language and energy in a unison that vibrates with technical precision but is also full to bursting with individuality—a veritable circus for the senses—and a feat I have yet to see another choreographer accomplish with such grace and gusto.