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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 27, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 48
UW World Dance brings astonishing work of Akram Khan Company to Seattle
Arts & Entertainment
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UW World Dance brings astonishing work of Akram Khan Company to Seattle

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

UW WORLD DANCE
AKRAM KHAN COMPANY
'KAASH' (2002)
GEORGE MEANY HALL
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
November 12


A man - bare-chested, bare-footed, wearing a long dark skirt over long trousers, stands on the unlit stage with his back to the audience. The house lights are up. He stands there a long time. Is this intentional? Or is there a glitch in the music, the light cues? Could we be engaged in some kind of contest? Who will break their silence first, the dancer or the viewer? The audience begins to whisper and titter - we don't know what to do with this statue-like man standing for minutes on a bare stage. The stage itself is interesting - a blurry field of maroon on a white scrim, a white floor. We begin to wonder if this is another butoh dance of stillness, as we saw last month with Sankai Juku.

Suddenly the lights go out, the stage flashes red, and the auditorium erupts into frenzied drumming - loud, arrhythmic, heart-stopping. It all happens at once and we jump in our seats - and now four more dancers materialize on the right, in long skirts and pants - a bare-chested man, three women with sleeveless tops exposing powerful arms. They stand in a vertical line with right feet anchored, left feet repeatedly lunging forward and back - sideways to the audience - arms pin-wheeling in time to the drumming. At first they do this together, then in staggered patterns, never breaking their line, while the motionless man remains motionless. This first section of Akram Khan's 'Kaash' is surprising, dramatic - even thrilling. The skirts fling themselves out with every lunge, making these gestures seem like temple dances to a massive god. The dancer's fingers form patterns that look like fans, then duck beaks, always punctuating the stop-motion pose before they lunge again. We don't know what we're in awe of, but we are in awe.

For me, the opening of this fifty-five minute dance was the highlight of the evening. The surprise, the unfamiliar gestures, the intensity of the dancers, the contrast between stillness and fervid movement, the mysterious simplicity of the costumes, and the dramatic change of light, all came together in an unforgettable scenario. Akram Khan's chorography is based upon a style of Indian classical dance called kathak - and if you go online to read about it you see photos of young women dressed in just these trousers and skirts, swirling and forming their fingers into mudras - hand and finger gestures with assigned meanings from Hindu religious practice. It may be that the dance presented at Meany Hall followed the ancient forms, and it would be interesting to know how these forms have been adapted to modern audiences. But the Akram Khan Company did not feel even remotely like an anthropological or documentary demonstration of an Eastern dance for Western audiences. Instead it seemed like a thoroughly modern dance with a vocabulary that clearly referenced something or someplace, but remained mysterious and self-contained. Without prior knowledge of kathak the average viewer would still revel in the excitement and commitment of the dancers and their very challenging dance.

I was fascinated with the rhythm of these patterns, in which dancers made very rapid movements followed by a complete stop in a pose, then some small, tiny gesture with the hands, followed by rapid movements again, then the stop, pose, tiny gesture, etc. The art of the choreographer could be seen in the evolving patterns of dancers in relationship to one another - simultaneous movements, sometimes extremely complex - or sequential movements that demonstrated a single idea in an unfolding of forms and directions. The stop-start nature of the dance was, for me, very original, though I can sense the irony of this observation knowing that it comes from a dance tradition that is hundreds of years old - it's just original to me.

In the middle section of the work, which was very slow and performed by single dancers, the fascination retreated and my mind was engaged intellectually as individuals seemed to dance through the catalogue of movements that had been introduced so dramatically in the opening sequences. I found this section less compelling, though the tremendous skill and commitment of the dancers was apparent. When the complexities resumed with the full company of five dancers I was drawn back again into the explosive drama of the work, which ended as it began, with frenzied drumming and the contrast of huge arm movements and tiny finger gestures while the dancers moved through swirling patterns. The final sequence, performed by a lone male dancer - very tall and slender - consisted of mudras shaped with the arms on the whole body. The bird-like ending - back to the audience, arms crossed diagonally across the torso and fingers forming waist-high wings - was akin to a blessing, an 'amen,' or a 'namaste' - a most beautiful farewell.



We can thank Michelle Witt and the UW World Dance programmers for constantly introducing us to forms of dance that truly reveal the world in all its oldness and newness. The Akram Khan Company, based in London but traveling the world, is an example of how our understanding of dance and culture is expanded ever-outwards. We are challenged and educated as well as delighted by what we see. For my money it's the best deal in town - six dance concerts for as little as a $243 subscription. You get to see the greats: The Martha Graham Dance Company, the final tour of Trisha Brown, last year we saw Mark Morris, as well as favorites like Grupo Corpo and truly foreign groups like Sankai Juku and Akram Khan. It's appropriate that a great research university should be serving its city in this way - and we dance lovers should respond by supporting it. Christmas is coming - surprise someone you love with a year's worth of great dance concerts.

Coming up next in February - Trisha Brown Dance Company.

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UW World Dance brings astonishing work of Akram Khan Company to Seattle
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