A vertical road to George Town

“Vertical Road”, the acclaimed new show by the Akram Khan Company, provided some international flavour at the month-long George Town Festival. Akram Khan and producer Farooq Chaudhry explain the creative process to Rosalind Chua and tell her why interpretation is very much in the mind of the beholder.

Akram Khan in a contemplative mood.
Laurent Ziegler

Could you briefly explain the creative process for “Vertical Road”?

Akram Khan: When you finally create something, the history of how it was made becomes vague and is lost. You forget the origins of the ideas, when they started as fragments. It’s because the collaborative element which relies on the input and voices of many eventually takes over. But there is a process: I start with a dream, idea or experience that fascinates and interests me. I think of the people that I would like to work and go on an artistic journey with. At the same time I hire a researcher to explore as much as he or she can and connect directly or indirectly to my idea.

During this time I begin to search for dancers that I feel have the qualities to express my ideas or may directly relate to the vision for the project itself. For “Vertical Road” I travelled to the Arab Dance Platform in Beirut with my producer and we found two very special dancers from the Middle East. They joined my existing company. Several months later, aft er several open-ended brainstorming sessions with my collaborators, I decided that I wanted to play. Play means putt ing up all the material that my researcher has found on the walls of a dance studio and then freely exploring movement material with my dancers with no emphasis or concern about the end result.

A few months after play I go into the creation period where we generate more material, but at the same time begin to think of the structures, transitions and meanings that will hold the material [and mould it] into something that can be read and felt by us. It should resonate with mystery as well as clarity. If we don’t get it the audience certainly won’t. It is a difficult and often fragile process but requires good instincts and faith in your people and vision.

You mentioned that “Vertical Road” was influenced by Middle Eastern myths and stories. Which in particular?

consultations.

Farooq Chaudhry: We had a researcher search for stories, images and myths from the Middle East but what really captured us was a poem from the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi. It suggests change, journey and transformation, which is what “Vertical Road” is primarily about. Here it is:

I died from minerality and became vegetable;
And fr om vegetativeness I died and became animal.
I died fr om animality and became man.
Th en why fear disappearance through death?
Next time I shall die
Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;
Aft er that, soaring higher than angels -
What you cannot imagine,
I shall be that.

What does spirituality mean to you and how important is it in your work?

AK: I feel strongly about spirituality, and so in my humble opinion, what I admire about the notion of spirituality is that it is a formless concept that shifts its definition, depending on who is interpreting and experiencing it. So in “Vertical Road”, I wanted to stay true to that.

It is what the audience feels from the images and movements that they witness, rather than the dots that they try to connect, in order to make it more comprehensible for them to read.

FC: Spirituality is what separates us from animals. We yearn for it because we have the power of intelligence and love (empathy). Through spirituality we look for truth and meaning and it makes us ask the big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens to us aft er we die?; questions that can never really be answered but open the mind to thousands of different stories and myths.

 

Richard Haughton

What about fate? Do you believe in fate?

FC: It’s hard to say. He (Akram) never has actually said he believes in fate outright but the fact that the story seems so important to him implies that he does. In fact the artistic process relies so much on beautiful and meaningful things coming out of coincidences, collisions and mistakes. Believing in fate and destiny means you can argue part of the way the creative mind works, but perhaps artists would call it dreaming and vision!

You seem very open to collaboration, what is it you enjoy most about working with others, especially with other artistes from diff erent artistic backgrounds?

AK: What motivates me to collaborate? Human stories being shared with each other, human interaction, human ability to push each other to imagine beyond what we think we can imagine. What motivates me? The sense that in order to communicate with each other, to embrace and challenge each other, we have to constantly be in the present.

What motivates me? Well, maybe to constantly repeat this question to myself until I run out of words to explain what actually motivates me! Because then there is just “us” or “we” left behind, a collection of artistes of different disciplines, different languages, different cultures, different educations, but we are all in the same room, in silence, and all our passionate gestures and fierce negotiations have come to a standstill, and with it, a sense that we all want a single “truth”, that this journey together has to end up giving birth to our creation… that somehow, we as individuals are like small jigsaw pieces, but together, we form a single, but powerful, larger and fuller picture.

Richard Haughton

Laurent Ziegler

At this stage of your career do you prefer to choreograph rather than dance? What are the challenges you face as a dancer with such a specific style and what techniques do you use?

AK: I love both, because they are so interconnected. They allow me to be creative in two different ways. One is the maker and one is the interpreter. Because I’m not really interested in developing a specifi c language that can be taught it leaves me the freedom to draw my ideas from my dancers’ bodies as I do from mine. It offers more possibilities and greater riches in movement. I enjoy this process a great deal as I’m learning as much as I’m teaching.

There are fundamental differences in my dancing styles. My classical work demands my weight and centre to sit more on the back of my feet. On my heels. It requires enormous accuracy, much like classical ballet. When I dance modern my weight has to shift to the front of my feet as if I’m always falling forward or being torn off my axis and I have greater physical freedom to express myself in this sense of almost losing control.

I always promised myself that I would never dance both styles in the same evening but I broke that promise in my recent solo programme “Gnosis”. The result was a wonderfully varied evening for the audience but incredible physical stress on my body. I think I’ve shortened my dance career by about three years from this one programme alone. I don’t regret it because I needed to do it. But I’m sure that the classical work will remain longer in my body than the modern. It has deeper roots in me.

What (or who?) persuaded you to take part in the George Town Festival?

FC: We have never been to Malaysia before. It’s a thrill for us to discover a new country and its audiences. We received a very warm and enthusiastic email from the festival director Joe Sidek. We have two Malaysians working in our administrative team… they painted a wonderful picture of George Town to us and between Joe’s passionate email and the seductive images of Malaysia we needed no persuasion. I hope we live up to the Festival’s expectations and it becomes the springboard for many future visits to George Town and other Malaysian cities.

What are your expectations of performing here? What would you like the local audience to walk away from “Vertical Road” with?

AK: I would say “Vertical Road” has that sense where no message is specific, no clear point is stated, no narrative is literal and no form is formed. It is just a series of events that occurs for one particular character who is a sort of “messenger” or a prophet who interacts with others.

I was not so keen to turn this project into something more readable for the audience, because in the end, I feel you cannot see spirituality, I would like to think that you could only feel it. So the same goes with this piece! It is what the audience feels from the images and movements that they witness, rather than the dots that they try to connect, in order to make it more comprehensible for them to read. Dance is predominantly about feeling something from what they see, and not reading something from what they see!



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