Born identity – Akram Khan

Akram Khan leads one of Britain’s most exciting contemporary dance companies. Maria Roberts talks to the choreographer about his career, Bangladeshi influences, creative practice and his perspective on race, equality and diversity.

“Ethnicity does play a part: you are supported to reach a certain point – and everyone is excited for you – but then, that’s it. That’s as far as you can go, you are not White. I think there is definitely racist elements there [the stunted progression of artists] – it is sometimes obvious or not obvious.”


In recent years London-born Akram Khan, founder of Akram Khan Company (AKC), has become the epitome of contemporary dance cool. The choreographer’s stock has been rising since his Olivier Award-winning DESH (2011), and he’s been adding a dash of street cred to festival lineups for years.

Now Khan’s name is mentioned in the same breath as Wayne McGregor, Crystal Pite, Hofesh Shechter, Pina Bausch and William Forsythe. He’s collaborated with the likes of Juliette Binoche, Sylvie Guillem, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Nitin Sawhney.

From Hong Kong to Montréal, there’s a tangible fizz in the air when someone excitedly drops into conversation that Khan has either performed, or will be performing soon. Is he aware of the buzz around him? He says he is, but that it’s not what drives him to create.

“The most important thing for me is movement – and by that I mean the movement of dialogue, information and exchange of ideas. The fundamental basis of collaboration is that there is an ebb and flow between two, three and four people, my intention is to keep that movement alive.”

His works are metanarratives that draw inspiration from his life, arts, politics, and blended cultures. Khan’s own heritage is infused with British and Bangladeshi influences. How does he come up with the premises for these tightly-packed big human stories?

“When I create work I don’t ‘plant’ the seed of an idea but place it on the table – a show might come from an image or an idea. Then we create movement in response. We do conceptual mapping over the course of a year. Once we are in the studio, the physical and psychological mapping take three months; it is all part of a long process of bringing collaborators together.”

Have things got easier for him lately? Does he feel like he has arrived and is here to stay? “I don’t know exactly when it changed, perhaps after a decade of the company’s work. The shift came not just in relation to dance: I love to branch out into films, documentaries, books. I’m more aware of my thoughts and my opinions [now], the success of the company has transformed the way I present those things, but the questions I ask in my work have always been the same, though the way I form my answers has changed.”

Khan speaks warmly about the influence his mother has had on his career. Born in Wimbledon in 1974, he came from a household filled with a love of performing. He danced in the garden as a child and was encouraged by his mother to take his interests more seriously. “I discovered Indian dance age six or seven with my teacher, my guru, he gave me access to high-level classical music and dance. Though I had very bad access to Indian classical music too – my aunties would come and sing every weekend, completely out of tune and off rhythm! Western classical music, opera and dance came much later, after university I would say, although Western popular culture had a huge influence on me.”

Khan has never been one to hide behind his ideas and his works are contextualised by his own dual heritage experiences: DESH (2011), adapted to Chotto Desh (2015) for children aged 7+, Until The Lions (2016), and English National Ballet’s Giselle (2016) all carry his unique hallmark. Khan’s most recent solo work, XENOS, is his strongest example of putting this voice on stage. XENOS premiered at Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens in February 2018 and will tour until 2020, stopping off for dates in Shanghai, Cologne, Montréal and Berkeley, to name a few. His final performance of Until The Lions will be at London’s Roundhouse in January 2019.

Chotto Desh © Dancer Dennier Alamanos
Chotto Desh © Dancer Dennier Alamanos

Unusually for an artist, the dancer is comfortable expressing his personal opinions and tells me he’s feeling more politicised now than ever before, XENOS is a portrait of his growing concerns. “There was a huge shift for me when I did XENOS. I suddenly felt that the work was not just about art anymore. I began to feel that I have to do this [create dance] for humanity in my own way. It’s my way of saying we are fucked up and the world is fucked up. XENOS is there to say, ‘look at the mess we’ve made – if we don’t look at it now we are fucked’. “Essentially, this work is a reflection of how I feel about our world today. It is about our loss of humanity and how, through past and present wars, we are yet again confronted by the burning question of what it is to be human. How can humans have such ability to create extraordinary and beautiful things from our imagination, and yet have an immense ability to create and commit violence and horrors beyond our imagination?

“I’m not quite sure why but I’ve always been fascinated by extremes – from an earthquake to the butterfly effect, these philosophical and metaphorical concepts have always fascinated me.”

Brexit, the increased influence of right wing parties in Europe and the Americas, and how problems past and present seep into daily life, trouble him. “Every being of us is political right now: it’s like electricity running through human civilisation and inside the earth. Brexit has given light to the symptoms of xenophobia that we saw before WWI and WWII. In XENOS we are asking is xenophobia about to be repeated for a third time? So yes, as a choreographer and dancer I am political.”

Does it run deeper than dance? Has Brexit got under his skin? Is he concerned about how politics affect him and his own family right now? “Yes,” he says strongly – the weight of the word obvious in his tone. He recalls how, as a breakthrough artist, he was treated differently because of his ethnicity.

“When we started off Farooq Chaudhry [who co-founded the company]  and I were unknown Brown men living and making work in Britain in the midst of a political shift – and Islam and Muslims were the target [Chaudhry is from Pakistan]. There were these horrific terrorist atrocities and Brown men, like us, were at the end of that. As a company we experienced a meteoric rise until we hit the glass ceiling – and then for a while we had to struggle to break through.

“Ethnicity does play a part: you are supported to reach a certain point – and everyone is excited for you – but then, that’s it. That’s as far as you can go, you are not White. I think there is definitely racist elements there…it is sometimes obvious or not obvious.

“I felt it. It’s like you really have to work harder to prove yourself, much harder than your White colleagues. We need a more diverse world now, but the reality is that world is seen predominantly through the eyes of the White man: they won most of the wars, history is written by the White man, the way we’ve viewed women is through the eyes of the White man, and the way we see nature too. In different parts of Asia and the East this is not the case, but only in those places that have not been colonised.

“Diversity – by that I mean seeing different perspectives culturally and through the prism of gender, and in all walks of life – is really important but we also need to ask real questions about tokenism; be sure you are not being taken on because you are Brown or Black, but because you are brilliant. I think there should be a real sense of quality control.

“I don’t want to be accepted because I am Brown, I want to be accepted because somewhere down the line my work touches that person. Tokenism is not beneficial.”

Khan’s brilliance is widely acknowledged, the company’s website lists 33 awards with 2018’s accolades alone being the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Production in Dance Division, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, Luminato (Until The Lions) and The Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards 2017, Best Classical Choreography, for English National Ballet’s Giselle.

As an artist and individual, Khan strikes me as courageous: his works, like his politics, play with scale and individualism, in interviews he is forthright and honest, yet he has also revealed that he experiences “fear”.

How do the two polar opposites, fear and courage, combine to make an impactful company like AKC? And what is his fascination with scale and volume? “Scale reminds me of how important and how unimportant we are, how insignificant we are when we think we are so significant. I think fear and courage are interconnected.

Courage is about being gracefully fearful. My mother has always given me courage, as has Farooq Chaudhry – without his love and support and courage I wouldn’t be here today. He founded the company, he is entrepreneurial, he had a lot of courage and he gave me a lot of courage.

“You know what that courage is? It is saying – ‘I believe in you’. My mother was always like that with me, I can’t say I alone have courage because I have never been alone, I have always existed in collaboration with others.”

And from here he expresses his feelings around #MeToo and the status of women in the arts, media and business. “In my experience, courage is in the DNA of women. The female gender. Birth is literally the moment of life and death – it is the most fragile moment for a woman.”

XENOS © Jean Louis Fernandez
XENOS © Jean Louis Fernandez

He continues that feminism is a response to inequitable gains. He cites John Berger as an inspiring force on how he relates to themes of identity. “In his book, Ways of Seeing, Berger talks about how through the centuries women have portrayed themselves through the eyes of a man and perceived notions of what a man would want. In Greek mythology, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the enemy is always the woman. The myths are written by men anyway, they have constructed stories to control people and society and to give them a purpose.

The advantage is that it oppresses women so that men will be above women. That power balance also has to change and the #MeToo movement is just the beginning. The work done by #MeToo can’t disappear in a year – for most of civilisation men have dominated and for that to end it will need input from not just women but men too.”

Khan is very much the man of the moment in the dance world. Now aged 44, and a father, he and Chaudhry have spent 20 years creating something magical, no doubt it will be hard to let that go. “People are asking for more, but I think I will say no, my last performance of XENOS will be in December 2020, I think. I want to dance in other smaller things.”

What does this mean for AKC repertoire like XENOS, DESH and Until The Lions – will the company continue with other dancers? The children’s version of DESH, Chotto Desh, is performed by two young cast members and the adaptation has been well received.

“I’m thinking of adapting XENOS for a huge male cast and reimagining it for a ballet company, then it can tour with three people of different ages: a child, a dancer in his 20s, and one in his 60s.

“The works are very connected to me, I would love for it all to continue but also everything has its time. I can only pray that my work still touches people 10 years down the line – like those of Pina Bausch and DV8 Physical Theatre, whose classics continue to surprise.”

New show Outwitting the Devil makes its world premiere 13-14 July 2019 at COLOURS International Dance Festival, Stuttgart.