The celebrated choreographer's new documentary, The Curry House Kid, shows his own cautious optimismby Rebecca Liu / April 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan has had a busy year. Since premiering his final solo show last year, he has won a Laurence Olivier Award for his contributions to dance, signed on to choreograph a new full-length production with the English National Ballet, and developed a documentary film with Channel 4, The Curry House Kid, an exploration of the histories and futures of the curry houses on London’s Brick Lane.
What’s more, these are just a few of the achievements in his career. As one of the most celebrated names in the British dance world, he is also known for venturing outside its rigid boundaries: he choreographed a segment for the London 2012 opening ceremony, worked with Kylie Minogue to develop her Showgirls world tour, and has collaborated with artist Anish Kapoor, actress Juliette Binoche, and writer Hanif Kureishi.
People vest a certain aura around accomplished artists. The idea of a ‘higher calling’ is often invoked—the notion that these artists are drawn to their careers through an act of near-spiritual intervention. What there ever such a moment for Akram Khan and dance? Not so much. “It happened as stages, it didn’t happen in one go… it’s like a marriage, no?” he jokes.
Khan and I are in a curry house in north London, where he is preparing for a photoshoot for his upcoming documentary, The Curry House Kid. Though billed as a documentary, the film is also deeply personal for Khan—he himself was born to Bangladeshi immigrants who ran a curry house in Wimbledon. His childhood was often spent negotiating the expectations of the local immigrant community (and of his parents) and his own interests. He remembers the pressure well: “with the doubts that people had around my community, everybody put a lot of fear into me.” He was told often that a dance career was “not really steady.”
Nevertheless, it was Kathak—a classical north Indian dance form—that made Khan first fall in love with dance. After appearing on stage for director Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata between the ages of 13 and 15, he felt gripped by an impulse to perform: “I couldn’t adapt to school so I went and trained in my parent’s garage and bunked school for a year.” His mother, supportive of his passions, gave him one condition: get a university degree, just in case.
It was at university—Khan studied contemporary dance at De Montford University and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance—that he began to approach dance in a more conceptual way. In his classes, he relates, “we were dissecting choreography, we were exploring and experimenting, conceptually and intellectually. It was a new thing for me and I really loved that.” He clarifies that it is not a practice exclusive to certain dance forms: “It’s not that it wasn’t there in classical Indian dance, it’s just that”—as a young dancer rehearsing in his parent’s garage—“I never got to that stage with classical Indian dance.”
Kathak dance did in fact become a formative conceptual tool in Khan’s later practice. The Akram Khan Company, now coming into its nineteenth year, performs contemporary dance pieces suffused with Kathak practices. Pressed on his style, he demurs, preferring instead to reject formal boundaries: “I wouldn’t describe it as a style. I would describe it as, an exploration, a movement exploration, which is a little less formal.”
Nevertheless, one particular theme emerges across Khan’s recent works. Xenos, his final solo show that premiered last year, saw Khan play an Indian colonial soldier fighting in World War One. Taking its title from the Greek term for ‘foreigner’, the performance explored the meaning of home in the time of empire. Until the Lions, Akram Khan company’s most recent production, takes inspiration from the Mahabharata to tell the story of a princess who stands up to a patriarchal society. In The Curry House Kid, Khan stages dance pieces that grapple with his painful childhood memories of facing racism as a young waiter at his father’s restaurant.
Politics—or at the very least how human lives inevitably run up against political systems—has now commanded Khan’s attention. Artists, he suggests, ought to “ask questions about the system we live in.” “I never thought they had to,” he ponders, but the stakes are high—“otherwise our children won’t have a future.”
For most of us, dance is popularly associated with classically beautiful, visual feats of physical mastery. How can we approach dance beyond aesthetic enjoyment, and engage with it as philosophical inquiry into how to live? “It’s the first form of communication and to move is to hope,” Khan observes. “The fact that you woke up and came here”—he gestures to me, sitting beside him at the restaurant table—“is hopeful.”
I ask how dance might compare to theatre, an art form that is often understood to present complex, conceptual inquiries into the state of human life. “I love theatre, of course”, Khan notes, “it’s hard to put into a hierarchy”. But there are differences. Actors use words, and their texts come from the written word. ”Movement, on the other hand, “is more ambiguous. It has more questions. It’s more fluid”, For Khan, dance is a way to break outside the cycles of Western life—what he calls “patriarchal time, industrial time, money time.” It helps him explore “the things that politicians aren’t talking about enough.”
What things, I ask. His answer is instant: climate change. “We are at the end of our civilization, and we’re acting like everything is normal.” That day, protestors with the Extinction Rebellion began their week-long protest in London by shutting down Waterloo Bridge. “I wish they could shut down all the cities in the world” he says of their efforts, stressing the urgency of the current climate crisis, before circling back to dance —“they’re resisting and that’s a form of movement.” The task of movement in this world, he elaborates, is to resist the course built up by modern capitalism, a system he likens to “a vampire.” It is “self-consuming”, he relates; “when it can’t grow anymore, it will start eating itself.”
While Khan is preoccupied with the future, his most recent project sees him looking at his past. The Curry House Kid was not meant to be exceptionally personal, but became so over time as Khan revisited his experience working in his father’s restaurant. As a dancer, however, he has since come back to a warmer welcome in his home Bangladeshi community—“when I started getting into newspapers they started to realise that I was doing okay.” It is a little bit of an understatement, but Khan is not one to be particularly fussy with words. His is another language.
The Curry House Kid comes out on April 29 at Channel 4 at 10pm