Myths in motion

‘Outwitting the Devil,’ choreographer Akram Khan’s dance performance, inspired by the Gilgamesh epic poem, to be performed next month.

 THE AKRAM Khan Company’s ‘Outwitting the Devil.’ (photo credit: JEAN-LOUIS FERNANDEZ/REUTERS)
THE AKRAM Khan Company’s ‘Outwitting the Devil.’
(photo credit: JEAN-LOUIS FERNANDEZ/REUTERS)

In August of 1990, shortly after the Iraqi army entered Kuwait, a small but priceless artifact was stolen from a museum in Iraq. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, estimated to be over 3,500 years old, contained engravings in Sumerian which marked stories of ancient times, including the famed Epic of Gilgamesh. 

In 2007, the tablet reappeared on the American art market, but investigations uncovered it was a fraud. Seven years later, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was acquired by the American chain Hobby Lobby to be displayed in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. In 2019, federal agents seized the tablet from the museum, beginning a legal proceeding which ended in September of this year, when the tablet was finally returned to its rightful home in Iraq.

Choreographer Akram Khan has long been inspired by myths and legends. As such, the return of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet did not go unnoticed by Khan. “Myths, in many ways, are our guide, as a human collective. They can help us navigate through challenging times if we believe it to be a lesson to learn from, but I also do not see all myths as doing that,” he wrote in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. 

His creation “Outwitting the Devil” was inspired by the epic poem and will be performed in Israel in December as part of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center’s dance season

Decadance #21 Dancers (credit: ASCAF)Decadance #21 Dancers (credit: ASCAF)

KHAN IS one of the most celebrated international choreographers today. Born and raised in London to a Bangladeshi family, he began studying dance at a young age. While still in high school, he was cast in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, a production that went on to tour extensively in the late 1980s. Upon completing his formal studies, Khan founded his company in 2000. 

His works have been seen on the biggest and brightest stages around the world. He has collaborated with leading artists in the dance field, as well with Juliette Binoche, Kylie Minogue, Nitin Sawhney and others. In 2005, Khan was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Last year, an episode on the Netflix hit series Move was dedicated to Khan.

It has been six years since Akram Khan Company last performed in Israel. Then, they arrived with ITMOI (In The Mind of Igor), a piece for 11 dancers that looked at the internal workings of Igor Stravinsky’s music. In the years since, Khan has catalyzed a subtle sea change in his artistic vision. Whereas previous pieces brought young dancers to the stage, in Outwitting the Devil, Khan focused on veteran performers, whose life experiences became part of the creative process. 

“I find it extremely beautiful to work with artists of such different age groups, who work and move at different paces and with different degrees of approach to a narrative, the lived experience and the one that is discovering the experience anew,” he explained. 

The six dancers of Outwitting the Devil make their way through a set designed by Tom Scutt. “It is a sort of visual metaphor that transforms in its meaning depending on what moment we are in the performance. One moment it represents a burned forest, at another moment a cemetery, and at another moment a silhouette of a city,” Khan said.

All this is bolstered by an original score by Vincenzo Lamagna, lighting design by Aideen Malone and costumes by Kimie Nakano. Khan was joined in the process by longtime collaborator and dramaturg Ruth Little. 

For Khan, the Epic of Gilgamesh, “cannot be more relevant. The very part of Gilgamesh’s story that triggered me to commit to this particular myth was how it reminded me of our ignorance and arrogance toward nature, and how nature took its revenge of humankind.”

Khan will not join his company on the tour to Israel, as he will be performing his solo Xenos at Sadler’s Wells in London on the same dates. 

Akram Khan Company will perform “Outwitting the Devil” at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on December 9-11. For more information, visit www.israel-opera.co.il.