In the beginning, there is nothing. Only a silent theater and dancer Sung Hoon Kim standing upstage, stock still with his back to the audience. Then Akram Khan’s Kaash opens with a big bang, with thundering drumbeats that ripple through your heart. The ensemble emerges and rips into choreography that blends the furious attack of kathak and the lyricism of contemporary dance. You feel the universe forming in an atomic rush.
Khan created Kaash in 2002 as a 50-minute meditation on creation, destruction, black holes and Indian time cycles, through which the creation is said to infinitely undergo birth and destruction, Brahma and Shankar. The original version, performed by Khan and five other dancers, toured for two years and 133 performances. The current revival, updated and restaged for two men and three women, opened at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater on Friday evening.
In Khan’s choreography, kathak’s warp-speed spins and fierce gestures are immediately recognizable yet subverted and sculpted by contemporary weightedness and extended lines. Kathak is a classical storytelling art, and the dancers’ hand gestures, windmilling arms and warrior poses conjure birth, life and death, stirred up and spun out like newborn stars. Nitin Sawhney’s recorded score combines wind chimes, percussion and electronic samples layered with Khan’s delivery of kathak recitations and Kronos Quartet’s recording of John Oswald’s Spectre. Simple black skirts, with pants underneath, echo traditional kathak costumes stripped of their color, jewels and ankle bells.
Khan structured Kaash with wondrous care; the dancers almost never touch, instead orbiting through and around one another in arcs, chevrons, syncopated lines and pairs that become threes and fours and solos and fives. With their backgrounds in street dance and hip hop, Sarah Cerneaux and twin sisters Kristina and Sadé Alleyne own every phrase, always on top of the complex rhythms. Nicola Monaco performs his solo with the vulnerable perplexity of a fawn discovering the length of his limbs.
Kaash’s silent duets and vague finale seem ponderous in comparison to the immediacy at the heart of the work. During those sections the eye drifts to sculptor Anish Kapoor’s backdrop, a black rectangle that looms like a massive battle canvas of the void. The painting itself is a backdrop for lighting that transitions from peach to tangerine to crimson and spreads across the stage floor. The effect is mesmerizing, and a welcome escape from the chaos of our corner of the universe.