How has Akram Khan contributed to the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain?

Key question. So many answers.

Akram Khan.
Photo: Laurent Ziegler

Akram Khan is at the forefront of British contemporary dance, and a key contributor to the development of the genre. His awards and accolades alone can account for this; he’s won more Critics Circle National Dance awards than any other choreographer (6 to be exact), the prestigious ISPA Award for Distinguished Artist, a Laurence Olivier Award, and an Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to dance, just to name a few. Khan’s works are highly imaginative, thought-provoking and respected in the dance world. As an associate artist for Sadler’s Wells Theatre (the home of contemporary dance), his works form part of their core programme each year and are celebrated by a diverse audience.

So, what has he done to contribute to the dance scene, how can we evidence it, and how does it link to the context of the ICDSIB on the A-level spec?

  1. He developed a unique idiosyncratic style by blending contemporary with Kathak. Khan won’t be the only person in the world doing this, but he was the first to bring it to the forefront of British contemporary dance.
  2. He does not divorce dance from the real world; his works are relatable, focusing on a mix of universal emotions and personal ezoeieneces. (Identity, dual nationality and culture in Zero Degrees; his relationship with his father and Bangladesh in Desh). Works reflect, comment or seek to provoke and challenge audience in relation to current and historical social and political issues. (Women’s roles in Britain during WW1 in Dust, humanity and alienation in Xenos).
  3. He collaborates with a wide range of artists which increases the diversity of his audiences as well as ensures his works are imaginative. Collaboration results in a multidisciplinary approach which enhances storytelling and pushes the dance world by trying new ways to portray his subject matter. Some notable collaborators include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Sylvie Guillem, The English National Ballet, Antony Gormley, Nitin Sawhney and Jocelyn Pook.
  4. He takes advantage of the unrestricted choice of aural accompaniment by experimenting with both live musicians and prerecorded tapes, different genres, styles and cultures, and using speech, singing, bols, and found sound. The themes and intentions of the work dictate what type of accompaniment he will choose, for example in Dust, he collaborates with Jocelyn Pook who sourced a recording of a WW1 soldier singing in an interview. The way it crackles and repeats itself in the piece is haunting and emotive, emphasising the themes of loss, absence and memory. Powerful stuff!
  5. He increases the awareness of contemporary dance in Britain, increasing audiences, which in turn increases financial revenue for theatres and artists. This allows theatres and artists to continue to fund and create new works and new artists which develops the ICDSIB. Khan does this in a few ways: by collaborating with high profile artists e.g The English National Ballet (ENB). Some fans of ballet as a genre are likely to be introduced to Khan and the contemporary dance genre for the first time when they buy tickets for the ENB. He has created Dust, Giselle and Creature for the ENB so far. Using new forms of staging also increases audiences e.g Dust was performed at Glastonbury Festival in 2014 on the main Pyramid stage, which was also broadcast on BBC and reached millions of viewers altogether. Many of those viewers are likely to have never watched contemporary dance or heard of Akram Khan! This was an incredible opportunity to expand his audience base.
  6. Khan embraces culture and is not afraid to express his personal views on both Eastern and Western traditions. Many of his works explore culture and identity, questioning Khan’s own place in the world as a dual national. It is so engrained into his work that you can find it in every aspect and this point often overlaps with previous points, such as themes and aural accompaniment. Some key evidence of this can be found in Zero Degrees, where he shares a personal anecdote of a time he travelled from Bangladesh to India on a train (with a dead man, yes.) It explores culture, tradition, identity and spirituality. It uses kathak dance movement vocabulary as well as philosophy, particularly seen in Khan’s Solo: Abhinaya. (Abhinaya is the art of expression in Indian aesthetics. More accurately, it means “leading an audience towards” the experience of a sentiment. The concept derives from and is an integral part of all Indian classical dance style.)
  7. He takes a multidisciplinary approach with all of his works, constantly striving for new! Disciplines he often mixes with dance include drama (speech, gesture, characterisation), physical theatre, use of technology and media, and unique physical set designs. For example, in Desh Khan transforms the stage multiple times to enhance the ideas of the work using lighting, technology and props. One minute he is climbing a tree and standing head to head with a large projected elephant to help the audience visualise the child’s story being told through Khan’s prerecorded speech, and the next he is hanging upside down in between a million strands of golden material which remind the audience of the long grass he got lost in as a child. Other scenes include smashing a large hammer down into the stage as the audience is plummeted into darkness, and drawing a face onto his bald head as he changes his character to represent his father. Switching between and overlapping different disciplines enhances the story, entertains the audience and pushes the limits of contemporary dance.

Phew.. And that’s not all. But it’s certainly enough to ponder as you prepare to write your next essay on his contribution to the ICDSIB. If you are still a little unsure on how we assess a choreographers contribution to the dance scene, check out this post. Don’t forget, none of those contributions are usable without solid, descriptive evidence from a range of his works. Why don’t you check out some of his full-length works online here?


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