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Welcome to HARDtalk I am Stephen Sackur, in every culture
on Earth dances is a physical, joyful form of expression
It is, in a way the world's most basic common language.
Well, my guest today epitomises the ability of dance to cross
borders of time and space.
Akram Khan is British by birth, Bangladeshi by family heritage
and now globally renowned as one of the great contemporary
dancers and choreographers.
His performances weave together influences from East and West,
past and present, how would he define his dance?
past and present, how would he define his dance?
Akram Khan, welcome to HARDtalk.
Thank you, welcome.
It seems to me so many of the great professional dancers have been
raised in one very strict discipline, one cultural tradition,
but that isn't quite true of you, is it?
I was born and brought up in London, so already I was exposed to many,
many different cultural activities from very, very
But, my mother wanted me to learn something from her roots and not
just language because language was very crucial to her,
because of the independence of Bangladesh, the movement
originally started for the war to fight
between East Pakistan and...
So, the Bengali identity,
Bangladeshi identity was hugely important.
Did you learn Bengali?
I did, because she refused to speak to me in English.
She knew I would learn English in school because I was born
and brought up here.
She wanted me to be in touch with her language,
her culture, but also something that was classical.
That was close to her culture and classical Indian dancing
was the right thing, so that's what she forced me
into, or pushed me into.
This would be the Kathak tradition?
It is Kathak, exactly, north Indian classical dancing.
So, as a kid, you were living in South London, your dad
running a restaurant, but were you told that you would be
going to dance lessons, the Kathak traditional
Yes, it was more of a bribe, if I went I would get
something at the end of it because I was a kind of, of course,
when you are exposed to so many different things,
I was heavily into Michael Jackson...
How did your mother feel about that?
She was alright, she was OK.
Is it true that you won a prize at school for the best
version of Thriller, the Michael Jackson routine?
Yes, it was two things it was Michael Jackson,
I did a routine, and it was 5-star which is a group in that period that
I used to love and they used to be inspired by Michael Jackson,
so I won something about.
So I guess even, I don't know if we're talking what,
ten, 11, 12 years old, you were becoming a sort of fusion
in a way of different influences and I wonder whether that when
as you progressed through adolescence and you became very keen
on different forms of dancing whether there was a tension
in you about which direction to go, to follow?
I think the tension, yes there was, but the tension comes
from my community and social constructs of my parents' community,
because academics was really important for them,
because they were recently independent as a country,
they felt education was the way forward and dance was a hobby,
so up to this day, I mean, my community is great
and wonderful and supportive, but I do get the
occasional, "what do
you do as a real job?"
LAUGHTER And that's OK...
And did religion...
Obviously, your parents were from a Muslim tradition.
Was that in any way relevant, was there any religious impulse
to go in one particular tradition or direction rather than to embrace
Michael Jackson, for example?
No, my mother was extremely open, she is a very open,
she studied literature, Bengali literature,
but she also studied mythology from Greek mythology,
Hindu mythology, she was fascinated by stories, narratives,
and she kind of coached me into it and guided me into it
from a young age.
Many people from around the world will probably be familiar
with the Billy Elliot story of the kid Northern,
industrial town, a mining sort of town who is a brilliant natural
dancer and then has to struggle with himself and his family
and his community about getting into the right sort of dance school.
Yes. To explore his passion.
That isn't quite what you're telling me.
It wasn't that, sort of, having to escape.
No, first of all I don't, I wantto be very honest,
I was not naturally, I'm not naturally talented.
What I am is, I have one talent and that is I,
when I get obsessed with something I commit to it in a very
extreme way, I can go into my parent's garage,
which I did at the age of I think, just after GCSEs, I was lost
for a while and I went into my parent's garage
and they thought I was at college.
So, for a year I was hiding out in my dad's garage.
Training in Indian classical dance and that is my talent,
I did ten hours a day.
Wow, entirely in secret, private just for yourself?
Yes, that was my form of escape.
I just wanted to get really good at it, I just became obsessed by it,
I was fascinated by Kathak, north Indian classical dance.
And yet, if we fast forward a little bit to get to where your career
begins to take off you actually entered a very different environment
you went to one of the UK's top contemporary dance schools and then
you started to get work which was beginning to make your name,
not in the strict Kathak tradition but by actually finding a dance
language which combined some eastern traditional expression with a lot
of very, very contemporary, edgy, current Western dance.
I call it confusion.
People like to call, used to call the work fusion,
but I preferred to call it confusion, because really my body
was very confused at the time and I think out of that confusion
you start to search for your voice.
Your identity, in a way, which you're exploring,
actually through dance.
But, it could have been writing, or music or whatever,
but you you were very much autobiographical in a way.
A lot of my work is autobiographical.
I like to touch, there is a lot of questions
I would like to explore.
That went through my childhood.
As I said, Michael Jackson wasn't the only person,
I loved Charlie Chaplin, I loved Fred Astaire,
Buster Keaton, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, all these people
were my super heroes.
You brought Ali with you.
I thought HARDtalk, who's harder than Bruce.
It's a great cue, actually because we want to show everybody
a little bit of your dance, some of the stuff you have done.
Perhaps your most autobiographical work was Kaash, which took you,
in a way, back to Bangladesh.
Let's just enjoy 30 seconds or so of this.
For me, it's fascinating on so many levels, here you are,
the movement I love it so expressive, but also there's
a longing in it and a relationship between you and Bangladesh,
as represented by the nature, there.
I'm trying to figure out whether it's actually,
in a sense, sad or whether it's a very positive thing.
I think it's both.
The story is about my father.
In a way, I started the show with hammering this kind of grave.
So, when I told my father that, look, the show is kind
of about you and me and he was excited.
I said hold on, I have to tell you something you're dead
at the beginning of the show and he said, "you've killed me off
already and not even dead in real life."
So he was taken aback by that, but it's very much about my,
about how my father or how fathers from a different culture,
when they're in another environment, they start to question
what they want their children, which direction they want them to be...
He kept on saying to me when I was a teenager,
I was imitating a lot of Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee,
all these people who were my super heroes, and he said,
I want you to be more Bangladeshi.
I still to this day don't know what that means.
It was really something in his own mind that he believed in.
Partly you are exploring your relationship to him, but in terms
of your own relationship with the culture you grew up
in in London and then in the dance world in the West,
but also very regularly visiting Bangladesh.
Did you mean, and do you feel like an outsider, actually,
in both cultures and countries?
Yes, I do.
I never felt an outsider in Britain as much as when Brexit happened.
In Bangladesh I always felt like an outsider.
I feel more British when I'm in Bangladesh and I feel more
Bangladeshi when I'm in Britain, so for me it's about no borders,
really, a home is where for me, where family is and where
they feel most safe.
I'm interested that you say you never felt more of an outsider
in the UK than you do today, because just from reading things
that you said in the past there were difficult experiences
when you were a kid.
Your father's restaurant sometimes was visited by pretty
obnoxious, racist people.
Yes, we went through a really bad period.
And I think many people from the Bangladeshi community
and others would say, actually there is less
overt racism today then there was back then,
30, 40 years ago.
I wonder why you feel more of an outsider now?
It's changing, no?
With Brexit I think things are changing.
I think that racism has an open door now, somehow, a bigger voice,
the sense of creating walls with other cultures,
xenophobia, fear of the other, fear of the foreigner, from me a lot
of my work explores that.
You weave that into the stuff you are doing.
Because that's my reality, I explore things that happen to me
or that are surrounding me.
Coming back to the point about mash up and fusion,
and want to bring in another clip because it seems so relevant
to what you are saying right now.
You took a classical ballet, Giselle out, you worked
with the English National Ballet and gave it a contemporary twist.
When you talk about walls and talk about immigrants coming
you reimagined a love story taking place with Giselle
who is active garment worker, a very poor girl and let's
just look at the imagery that comes from your Giselle.
Again, stunning images, very different from the clip
that we saw earlier.
What was it like working with the English National Ballet
and with Tamara Rojo who is one of the great contemporary dancers?
It was extraordinary, I mean, you know, particularly working
with the English National Ballet, I have not worked with
other ballet companies, and English National Ballet,
I was always apprehensive of working with a ballet company...
Were they open to you? Yes.
To what you were bringing which is probably very different
to everything they have worked with before.
That is why I was apprehensive about if they would be open.
They were extraordinarly gernerous and really daring,
they really support of the entire process and kudos to
the Tamara and her team, they are extraordinary.
Classical repertoire has a heritage.
It has a lot of weight, so I could feel the weight.
And Giselle is a very loved piece, and it's
an extraordinary piece of work.
So, to take it and then have the audacity to...
You didn't dance in that, did you?
No, no, I wish I could do ballet.
I was going to say, you said very modestly at the beginning
of the interview the secret was you weren't very talented
I don't think anybody watching that would believe that,
but could you have been?
Could you imagine now, you're so experienced
in the world of dance, if you had gone in a different
direction, could you have been a classical ballet dancer?
I don't think so, I used to love Nureyev and Baryshnikov,
they were also one of my heroes, both of them were extraordinary
ballet dancers and I always dreamed of being like them.
What do you think you don't have?
Personally, I don't have the body for it,
I don't have the flexibility, but it depends because maybe
as a child perhaps if I had started early enough,
but, you know Nureyev started much later, but still, I mean,
he's just exquisite, but...
So, you use your body in a very different way.
I'm interested in that, I'd like you to determine
a little bit about how, the mechanics of how you tell
stories with your body.
What are the great gifts that you need, what kind of flexibility
and what kind of expression can get out of your body?
For me, the flexibility idea with is an illusion,
I work with illusion of flexibility.
I don't truly have an immense range at all, physically, but I'm fast,
that is one thing I've always been, because of my training in Kathak
because you have to wear these very heavy belts around your ankles
and you train for hours and it is like having
weights around your ankles.
The moment you take them off you're like Speedy Gonzales.
You are super fast.
So, I think, also fear, fear of revealing I'm not flexible,
so I'd rather do things very fast.
So, things will become a blur, so you would be
like, is he flexible?
I didn't quite catch that...
And, so in a way my stylistic development came out
of the necessity of hiding what I was not good at.
Well, when you tell me about the things you took
from your Kathak tradition, it also reminds me that on this
journey of yours through different dance traditions and fusing things
together you have, in recent years, gone quite regularly to India
and I guess to Bangladesh, as well to put on some shows
and I know, that there has been a resistance to you.
People felt you had betrayed the tradition, but that
seems to have changed, because now you get huge acclaim
and audiences in India.
They now more open minded, do you think?
I think, always the traditionalists will be a little bit negative
or a bit difficult, with absorbing what I do or accepting what I do.
But, it has changed and got a lot better.
I have to say the younger generation are amazing,
they have really embraced it.
In India it's so exciting, I love performing in India
and Bangladesh, too.
Dance strikes me as, I guess I said it in the introduction,
it's such a sort of elemental art form, because in the end
you are communicating through your body and I can see that
one of the implications of that is that as you age,
and as your body becomes perhaps, you know, less powerful,
less potent, it affects your ability to tell stories and express
in the way that you want to.
I would say, technically yes, I think, you know, it depends
if you look at it from a Western perspective or an eastern,
It depends also on the dance form.
In Kathak the real masters are when they are at their
peak from 40 onwards.
Everything else before that is preparation.
I think in western classical dance form it is much earlier because,
it's not just about having strength it's about knowing how to use that
strength in a poetic way and a deeper way.
For me, the older I become the less, of course I have to abandon
the reality that my body cannot do some of the things that I would love
to do when I was 30, but then I find other things
and I find other ways to express that same movement.
Get it across in a different way.
You do less dancing now and probably more...
I do more training.
I do more training now.
You mean for yourself?
Yes, I have to.
Right, so you have to actually train more.
Even more than I did before.
The reason why I think it is important, when discussing
dance, to get into the physicality of it, is because it is so important
and you'd said, and they think there were three of you,
leading to in contemporary dance in the UK he wrote
a letter not long ago, an open letter, saying that the,
as far as you were concerned the new generation of young,
contemporary dancers in the UK were not disciplined enough,
not hungry enough, not training hard enough to be the very best and that
a lot of the best young dancers you could see and that
you want to work within your own company were actually
coming from overseas.
We were talking more specifically about the training,
perhaps selfishly geared toward our company's work,
so I always needed very strong, technical dancers, and I felt that
at that time, the dancers that I was singing coming out
of the colleges were not geared towards the kind of dancers I was
looking for and perhaps the same for the other two choreographers.
It's not a basic hunger thing, you're not saying that
young people today are...
With so many different forms of entertainment and art and culture
around them are not dedicating themselves to dance in the way that
you have do to be the very top.
I think in any form if you really want to have a profound impact on it
you have do become obsessed by it and I do believe, deep down,
that whatever technique it is, it has two inprison you,
you have to learn it so much, you have to learn about it so much,
you have to do it so much that eventually that imprisonment,
you find freedom out of that imprisonment, you find freedom out
of that form that you have been trying to perfect.
But, it means you go through an awful lot
of pain on the way.
Yes, pain of course, but everything is pain,
anything is hard work, if you want to be good at anything
you have to work hard, you have to sacrifice stuff
and you if you feel it is a sacrifice then
it is already a problem.
If you consider you, to be where you are,
you had to put in many, many hours of work,
you have to do do it,
you have to go through it.
What now, then, for you, because you do an awful
lot around the world.
I'm just going to make other people go through it now.
I'm done doing it.
Going through the pain.
You mean, you're seriously contemplating quitting
being in active dancer altogether?
I think and slowly winding down, yes, for sure,
I don't tour so heavily.
Maybe a few more years and then I may do a small role,
because I love to dance anyway.
But, I love to dance for my children, you know,
I love to dance in the living room, I love, these days, the training
part is the bit that I don't like any more,
used to love it before but it hurt so much.
It's like running, when you were born at 20,
it's different to anyone at 30, go for a jog, the spring changes
the way you run changes, and when you run at 40 it's
different from the way you run at 40, you feel it, and so,
I feel a huge different is what I felt at 20 and 30,
so I enjoy the performance part of it but not the training part
of it and I think that...
I just wonder whether you're going to be happy when you have quit
dancing professionally, because you've said,
sometimes you feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff,
politics, administration that comes with running a company and doing
all of the stuff that means that you can get your shows around
the world, but not actually involving you dancing on the stage.
If that becomes your life, will you find that deeply frustrating?
I think I will, but I will still keep dancing in the privacy
of my own space, I think.
I love to explore the ideas that I cannot do in my own body
in other people's bodies.
Like working with English National Ballet, their extraordinary ability
facility that they have, pushes the language further and,
they come already with a very solid training of ballet so this kind
of connection between what I do and at the ballet body,
was fascinating for me.
I was fascinated by the point shoes.
And what women can do one point, it's just extraordinary,
I've seen it before, but until you work with them
directly you truly, really, you really respect it because it's
an extraordinary technique.
What it did was transform the material that I usually create
and my body to my dancers.
To end, any thoughts on the next big sort of theme
that you might take an?
You've talked a lot about immigration and though walls
that people build between cultures, what's the big theme that
you might tackle next?
Definitely the body, but I'm interested in the mythological body,
and the technological future body.
Robots, artificial intelligence.
I look forward to seeing it.
Akram Khan, it's been a pleasure to have you on HARDtalk,
Thank you very much, indeed.
Thank you very much.
Stephen Sackur speaks to one of the world's most renowned contemporary dancers and choreographers, Akram Khan. In every culture on earth, dance is a physical, joyful form of expression and communication. It is, in a way the world's most basic common language. Khan's performances weave together influences from east and west, past and present - so how does he define his dance?