Akram Khan on Creature, climate change and updating ‘racist’ Rudyard Kipling

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Akram Khan is about to embark upon his second full-length production for the English National Ballet - John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Akram Khan is about to embark upon his second full-length production for the English National Ballet - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Akram Khan is tired of everyone talking. “One of our greatest gifts, one that we’ve lost, is the art of listening. Theatre is still a place of the art of listening. You make a contract. You buy a ticket, and you say, ‘OK, I’m going to turn my phone off, I’m going to [tune] the white noise out and give my focus and time.’ We have to try and make sure we use those moments in a sacred way.”

Over the years, Khan has served up an extraordinary array of reasons for audiences to extinguish their mobiles, fusing the classical Indian Kathak on which he was raised and his subsequent contemporary training into a unique hybrid, and generating one of dance’s most empathetic and exhilarating bodies of work. To name just a few of many of his dancer-choreographer triumphs, Zero Degrees (released in 2005, the year after he was appointed MBE) was a stirring chronicle of a fatal border-crossing; DESH (2011) was a phantasmagorical solo pilgrimage to his ancestors’ homeland; and Until the Lions (2015) was a thrilling modern-myth rooted in gender-fluidity well before the subject was making headlines.

As a choreographer, he has also, in recent years, formed a rich partnership with English National Ballet. Dust – his contribution to their 2015, Great War-commemorating Lest We Forget bill – was an unforgettable cry of pain at the emotional fallout of armed conflict; his 2016 Giselle a bold and brilliant reworking of that Romantic staple for the 21st century. That relationship continues apace this month with the Sadler’s Wells world premiere of Creature, a full-evening, full-company piece which has had a curiously fractured gestation. For one thing, it was supposed to launch first on 1 April last year, and then that autumn, but lockdowns scuppered both. For another, it changed in direction even before it got off the ground.

“Creature originally started around the idea of Frankenstein,” he explains, “and then, I saw a Frankenstein, and I decided I didn’t want to make another after that one.” Khan is too tactful to say which version that was, though this was also the year of the Royal Ballet’s calamitous stab at Mary Shelley’s classic. “So, Ruth [Little, his regular dramaturg] and I were discussing: ‘what is in our heads and hearts right now?’ And really, it was climate change, and control over the masses.”

Creature is set to premiere at Sadler’s Wells later this month - Amber Hunt
Creature is set to premiere at Sadler’s Wells later this month - Amber Hunt

Instead, they turned to Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, deciding to turn that 1830s play – about a lonely soldier who agrees to undergo dehumanising medical experiments – into something very modern. And, although the new work’s Arctic setting remains (partially as a nod to Frankenstein’s icebound climax), it is also central to the reworked story.

“The Arctic is our last frontier, packed with minerals and resources,” says Khan. The Russians have been there for years, by the way, and they’ve been very smart. They’ve studied it, and they’ve seen how soldiers can survive there and so on. So, we decided to base it in the Arctic where there’s this army barracks if you like, or an experiment bunker.”

In fact, Khan originally had some of his characters wearing masks when they stepped outside, but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe everybody has to wear a mask.’ So, we decided we’re not going to wear masks, because people would immediately go, ‘oh, is this about Covid?’, and it’s not.”

The piece is partly a veiled critique of the billionaire space race at a time when the whole planet is under threat. “There’s an instability in the climate and the air, and so Creature is being tested with suits and helmets to see if he can survive the outside temperature and toxicity. If the doctor succeeds in being able to make him survive, then they have a chance and they’re going to head off – without Creature, inevitably.

But is the lead character – to be danced by quicksilver ENB principal Jeffrey Cirio – actually human? “He is human, very much human,” Khan confirms. “If anything, he represents the majority of the world, the ones who are powerless.”

Khan performed Xenos, an impressive solo show, in 2018 - Alastair Muir
Khan performed Xenos, an impressive solo show, in 2018 - Alastair Muir

Matters of race, identity, privilege, heritage and sexual politics have long fascinated the 47-year-old, who was born to Bangladeshi-immigrant parents in Wimbledon, where he still lives with his wife and two children. During our conversation, the subject of colour-blind casting comes up. Hasn’t dance – which at least appears completely to disregard its exponents’ ethnicities on stage – been some way ahead of film and theatre in this respect? “I’m very privileged and very lucky, that’s all I can say,” he says. “But I cannot deny there is a colonial aspect to the way the infrastructure of contemporary dance is set up. It’s just that it’s much more hidden.”

He continues: “There are board meetings I go to and [I think], ‘hang on, [these are] all white voices, male predominantly’, and if you want diversity, you stick a woman in there. So, you’d be surprised, the gatekeepers of who’s in and who’s out… Contemporary dance is much more subtle in its racism than ballet, theatre, film, but it’s very present.”

Another difficult subject, colonialism, comes up when we discuss one of Khan’s future projects, The Jungle Book, which is due to premiere at the Leicester Curve next April. Written by Tariq Jordan, with songs and music by Anoushka Shankhar, this promises to be quite an event. “It’s much more in the realms of the surreal and the magical than Creature,” says Khan, “and I’m pouring lots of joy into it. I felt it was very important that I make it for the family, because I wanted to revisit The Jungle Book, but to reimagine it with the theme of climate change.”

Khan launched his career in the Adventures of Mowgli tour (1984–1985) produced by the Academy of Indian Dance - Alan Dilly/Akademi archives
Khan launched his career in the Adventures of Mowgli tour (1984–1985) produced by the Academy of Indian Dance - Alan Dilly/Akademi archives

Khan’s affinity with the story goes back to his youth. He began his stage career in the Adventures of Mowgli tour (1984–1985), produced by the Academy of Indian Dance. Still, some might be surprised that an artist of his lineage is tackling this 1894 story, given its author Rudyard Kilping’s now-notorious views about the British Empire, and the many accusations of racial stereotyping that have been levelled at the 1967 Disney animation.

What would Khan say to them? “Absolutely Rudyard Kipling was a racist, and he was [an] imperialist, and he was confident in saying that, too. He believed in that system. But you know, The Jungle Book was inspired – and that, I do give Kipling credit for – by huge research into Indian stories. The story that Disney took is only part of it, and a lot of the stories are directly taken from Indian myths. What’s important to me is: how do we reclaim it?”

Before this, at the end of November, Sadler’s will follow on from Creature in hosting a scarcely less noirish trio of works by Khan, under the lyrical banner “Carnival of Shadows”. This includes his quite unimprovable solo show Xenos (2018), as scintillating to watch as it is punishing to perform.

“I can’t wait for it to be over!” he admits. “I’m just dreading the fact that I have to do an hour-and-20-minute show solo.” When I suggest that he’ll at least be ridiculously fit at the end, he laughs. “Fit, or dead!”

Creature is at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1, from 23 Sept-2 Oct ; Carnival of Shadows, from 23 Nov-3 Dec. Tickets: 020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com. Jungle Book: Reimagined opens at the Leicester Curve on 2 April, 2022

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