A few weeks ago, I went to see Vertical Road by the Akram Khan Company. Inspired by Sufi themes, it was a beautiful and intense piece of dance – full of raw emotional energy and an incredible sense of connection between the dancers.
But I’ve been reflecting on something that Farooq Chaudhry (the producer) said in the press conference: “It’s not so much dance fusion as it is confusion.” He explained that Akram Khan (the dancer who started the company) was brought up learning Kathak, and when he took on contemporary dance at university, it left his body “confused”.
On many levels, I can relate.
Right now, I’ve just come off daily bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) practice and my body is thoroughly confused. For as light and graceful as bharatanatyam appears, it’s actually a very ‘stiff’ dance. The basic exercises involve a lot of powerful, stylized stomping with your lower legs isolated from the rest of your body. And choreography is tight: your movements are precisely set at every beat of the music, down to your hand gestures, facial expressions – even the direction your eyes are looking.
All this is the complete opposite of the Middle Eastern dances that I was brought up in, where the movements are more free-flowing and it’s up to you to string moves together, in the moment, as you interpret and respond to the music. Even when I was learning Native American powwow dances with Daystar, they worked in a similar improvisatory way – so while they used completely different movements and music, they weren’t quite as confusing.
Beyond dance, I think anyone who has had a cross-cultural experience, whether they come from a mixed-cultural background (as I do) or have lived as an expatriate (as I have for most of my life), can relate to this “confusion”. You learn to be a certain way according to one set of values, expectations, and out-of-self realities – only to find yourself in situations that trump all that, and you have to learn from scratch again like a child.
And confusion is such a personal thing, tailored precisely to each person’s weaknesses.
This is why it makes people so uncomfortable. Why I see, all around me, people who resist it – clinging to everything familiar and shutting out all that isn’t. And I do sympathize with them, not least because there are periods in my life where I do the same. As a kind of “rest”. Sometimes you have to, to keep yourself sane.
But if that’s all do, you miss the opportunity to expand. Whereas if you can embrace the confusion, working your way through the discomfort, you can create such wonderfully rich fusions out of it.
And that is the essence of Akram Khan’s work, which draws together dancers from very different backgrounds and invites them to create their own confusion.