Moved by the spirit

‘Gnosis’ is driven by the same unrelenting creative focus that has propelled its creator, choreographer Akram Khan, to center-stage prominence in the dance world.

June 1, 2010 12:24
3 minute read.
Akram Khan

Akram Khan 311. (photo credit: Laurent Ziegler)


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Choreographer Akram Khan grew up on super-heroes like Batman and Superman. Being a child of Bangladeshi parents living in England, he experienced a childhood like that of many second-generation immigrants, torn between where one is and where one came from. After years of investigation, Khan has found a common thread between the comic books of his youth and Indian lore; his solo work, Gnosis, which he will perform twice as part of the Israel Festival this week, is as much a blend between east and west as was his upbringing.

“People always ask me which flag I hold,” he said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, “the British or the Indian flag, and I tell them that the best thing about what I do is that I need both hands for each dance so I can’t hold a flag.”

Gnosis is Khan’s take on the story of Queen Gandhari from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. “I discovered super-heroes in Hindu mythology,” explained Khan. “I was looking at the male characters and I thought that there must be a female character. However, the female characters are not nearly as celebrated. That deviation made me interested in Gandhari and how powerful she was, and yet she was very powerless.” (In the text, Queen Gandhari blindfolds herself permanently to honor and connect with her blind husband.)

Khan’s connection to the Mahabharata goes back to the beginning of his career as a performer. As a teenager, he took part in Peter Brook’s legendary production of the epic. Though his role did not include dancing, Khan was bitten by the performing bug and has been hooked since. Khan entered the dance world through Kathak, traditional Indian dance, at the age of seven. Shortly after, guru Sri Pratap Pawar took Khan under his wing, training him in the intricate art of story-telling through movement. In 2000, after he completed a degree in contemporary dance, Khan created his own dance company, with which he continued to create and perform.

DESPITE HIS vast experience on the stage, Khan admitted that he still gets butterflies in his stomach every time he is about to perform.

“The older I get, the more nervous I become,” he said. “The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. The wiser you get, the better you are at disguising that nervous energy. It’s important to be nervous – otherwise I wouldn’t be caring about what I do.”

In fact, when asked what performances were most memorable to him, Khan quickly pointed out that his successes had long faded from his memory. “The memorable ones were the failures,” he said, “the ones that need a lot of questions and answers, and from those answers comes the learning. As an artist, when you deal with a mistake, it reveals who you are.”

Regardless of the numerous prizes and showers of praise, Khan is not content with his achievements. “I like the fact that I’m not happy with my work. It’s the only reason I continue. It pisses me off every time I see the last piece. Because I always think it’s better than it is. People hype up your piece and then you see it on video and it’s a load of crap. If I ever get it right I’ll stop,” he said.

Khan’s thirst for perfection has floated him to the top of the international art world, where he enjoys thrilling creative collaborations with other beloved artists. Some of the names that decorate his scrapbook are Sylvie Guillem – one of the world’s most cherished contemporary dancers – fellow choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, internationally acclaimed musician Nitin Sawney and actress Juliette Binoche.

However, for Gnosis, Khan decided to go it alone (although is joined onstage by a group of musicians). “This project was made because I had done so many duets that I kind of became ‘duetted’ out,” he said. “I wanted to go back to solo work. It’s the first time that I am presenting classical and contemporary styles in one show. Usually I keep them separate. It’s so demanding on the body and so difficult to shift from one to the next. It is a struggle but I enjoy the challenge.”

Akram Khan will perform at The Jerusalem Theater on June 2 and 3. For tickets, visit

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