Akram Khan Company – iTMOi – London

Catherine Schaub Abkarian & the company in <I>iniTMOi</I>.<br />© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Catherine Schaub Abkarian & the company in iniTMOi.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

Akram Khan Company
iTMOi (in the mind of igor)

London, Sadler’s Wells
29 May 2013
Gallery of iTMOi pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou

On the exact evening that marked the Centenary of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) – an event now celebrated more in myth than by historical accuracy – Akram Khan unveiled his own decisive break from the past. Not only has he varied his own direction as a choreographer (as well as creating a work in which he does not perform), but Khan also made the courageous decision of forgoing the obvious opportunity to create a personal interpretation of Stravinsky’s epoch-breaking score. Instead, he has made an entirely new work based upon a concept of the motivations and influences occupying Stravinsky’s thoughts during the period of its composition.

I had the opportunity of interviewing Khan about iTMOi (rhymes with “coy”) around a fortnight before the premiere in Grenoble, earlier this month. He spoke of the “multiple worlds existing within the universe of Stravinsky’s brain” and it is this quote that I kept coming back to while watching the 65-minute work unfold. This is about twice the length of a full performance of The Rite of Spring, a fact accounted for by Khan collaborating with three composers on a new score, each making their contributions in isolation from one another, influenced only by the rhythms and patterns in Stravinsky’s work. The only direct reference to the original came in a brief and almost indistinct 30-second account of its opening bars at the very end of iTMOi, neatly suggesting that all that had gone before represented the turmoil of its creation “in the mind of Igor”.

Hannes Langolf & Kristina Alleyne in <I>iTMOi</I>.<br />© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Hannes Langolf & Kristina Alleyne in iTMOi.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Hannes Langolf & Kristina Alleyne in <I>iTMOi</I>.<br />© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Hannes Langolf & Kristina Alleyne in iTMOi.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

It’s a very tough ask to take on Stravinsky on the 100th birthday of his most celebrated creation and I quite understand why it was best done in triplicate! The elements of chance caused by having three composers work independently on the same score (Merce Cunningham and John Cage would surely have approved) are well worth the risk. Sudden changes of direction – for example, from operatic themes (Jocelyn Pook) to electronic buzz (Ben Frost) – do not jar and somehow the haunting, part-Gregorian, part-Gothic contributions of Nitin Sawhney stitch this musical tapestry into a seamless whole that incorporates many profoundly moving elements, including a sublime Kyrie Eleison.

This is unlike anything ever made by Akram Khan before and my admiration is boundless for an artist that can change direction with such startling effect. It’s as if he has opened up a whole new store – a gallery of modern art would be more apt – full of the most exotic (and erotic) artefacts, that are both beautiful and terrifying. There is nothing remotely derivative about the choreography or design (which are indivisible) but I sensed stylistic references reminiscent of Forsythe, Bausch and Graham. Where it ties back to Khan’s previous output is in a visual appeal that grabs hold of one’s imagination from the opening moment and never relents until the end.

If one is looking for a sense of simple clarity or an obvious linear relationship with the composer or the composition, then this will be hard to find in the “multiple worlds” represented by such diverse imagery. The horrific fear of sacrifice is constant, beginning with the charismatic TJ Lowe’s breathless, guttural narration of the story of Abraham being forced to offer up his son, Isaac, to God; later, the bird-like Ching-Ying Chien is doused in chalky earth as if in ritual preparation to be the “chosen one”; a male dancer, often silhouetted against the backcloth, prowls on all fours in a long-horned headdress (a sacrificial ram or perhaps the minotaur?); and the “Lord have Mercy” acclamation of the Kyrie with its own pagan antecedents identifies universal sacrifice through religious devotion. Even the dominating figure of Catherine Schaub Abkarian in her extraordinary white hooped gown had the permanent offering of an exposed and bloodied breast.

Catherine Schaub Abkarian and Denis 'Koone' Kuhnert in iTMOi.© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Catherine Schaub Abkarian and Denis ‘Koone’ Kuhnert in iTMOi.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

The arresting visual and aural imagery often displaced the impact of dance but when Khan finds the moments for movement it is exhilarating, with his excellent cast of 11 embracing a wide range of genres. Some of the more memorable dance motifs came in the silky, fluid breakdance skills of Denis ‘Kooné’ Kuhnert. The lighting designs of Fabiana Piccioli illuminated the possibility of achieving a sombre, gothic emphasis on darkness in a way that enriches a production without blurring it and Kimie Nakano’s eclectic range of costumes were equally central to the arresting visual appeal.

No-one could have expected this to be another once-in-a-lifetime explosion of genius but this is nevertheless a ground-breaking work. The Critics’ Circle recently celebrated its own Centenary (having held an inaugural meeting just three weeks’ ahead of that first performance of The Rite of Spring) and to mark the event, UK critics from five branches of the arts (dance, drama, film, music and the visual arts) voted for the 100 people who have made the greatest contribution to the arts over the past century. It should surprise no-one to learn that the youngest person on that list is Akram Khan.

About the author

Graham Watts

Dance Writer/Critic. Member of the Critics' Circle, Chairman of the Dance Section and National Dance Awards Committee. Writes for leading dance magazines & websites - in UK, Europe, USA, Japan & cyberspace. Graham is based in London.

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