Akram Khan's iTMOi reinvents Stravinsky's famous ballet

Akram Khan's dark reimagining of Stravinsky's ballet has caused a song and dance of its own, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 11:20pm

WHEN BRITISH choreographer Akram Khan was commissioned to create something for the centenary of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring (which caused a riot at the Paris Champs Elyses Theatre in May 1913) he did wonder briefly whether he should cause an uproar, too.

"But it would be impossible to have that effect today," says Khan, backstage at Sadler's Wells in London, where his piece, coming to Hong Kong on March 6, was premiered. "You can't control an audience and I don't think Stravinsky consciously knew that was going to happen."

However, even though he hadn't intended it, Khan's piece, with its nightmare-like dance sequences in dark forests and polite salons, did cause its own controversy. Partly it was the title: iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor). Most critics didn't like it, but Khan enjoys its spacing (the capital letters rising as a hill between two little "i"s) and the percussive sound saying it evokes - "itmoy, itmoy". But, mostly, the stir was because he did not use a single piece of Stravinsky's music.

In the 100 years since he was mocked in 1913, Stravinsky's standing has changed from being anti-establishment to totally establishment. Critics felt Khan had snubbed the master.

"But I didn't want to do it like that," he says. Other choreographers, such as Pina Bausch had already done their own brilliant versions of this terrible story of a young woman forced to sacrifice herself, by dancing herself to death.

"I just wanted to be inspired by the sense of rupture to make something new."

So he collaborated with three talented composers: Britons Nitin Sawhney and Jocelyn Pook (from the 1980s band The Communards) and Australian Ben Frost.

Khan spent a long time researching what shaped Stravinsky's vision. The Russian was ill as a child, and his mother pampered him: later he was so afraid of getting sick he would carry a large medicine cabinet everywhere he went.

"His brother was very handsome and strong while he was quite the opposite and I found that very interesting, too."

Stravinsky was inspired by the sounds the wooden cartwheels made on the cobblestones of St Petersburg when he was a child. "And gypsies singing. One of the strongest memories he had was the rupture of ice at the beginning of spring."

All of these memories fed into this strange, intense ballet. "And that's what we do. We take things and get attracted to them, we let it out in our creativity and it transforms into something."

Khan's first knowledge of any dance came at three years old when his Bangladesh-born parents sent him to learn kathak - one of India's great traditional dance forms. "They thought it would be my connection to Bangladesh. My mother was afraid I would lose that connection, as a lot of my generation did. Many don't speak Bengali, or know much about that culture."

Khan does speak Bengali. "My mother refused to speak to me in English until I was 10. And on that day she said, 'Happy birthday', in English and I said, 'Mum, you can say happy birthday?' and she replied, 'Of course I can; I'm a teacher, I teach at an English school'. I was so horrified. It really shocked me, actually. I'd just assumed she couldn't speak English."

His mother played a major role in iTMOi , which begins with the best-known sacrifice story in Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious traditions.

"I called my mother up from France, where I was making iTMOi in Grenoble, and I said, 'Ma, do you remember this story you told me about Isaac and his father Abraham'," says Khan, who is from a Muslim family. "She did. I asked, 'Do you remember I was about 10 and I was lying down and you explained how Abraham was going to sacrifice his son because God asked him to, to show his faith?'

"And I said, 'Do you remember that I asked you if you would sacrifice me if God wanted you to? And that you said no?'"

So, more than three decades later, as he was creating his own story about sacrifice, Khan asked his mother why she had told him that deeply upsetting story.

"She wanted to create a seed of doubt in me, because doubt is as powerful a guide as certainty."

Does Khan have doubt? When he is given the next crazy, unlikely project does he ever wonder if he can do it?

"All the time. Can I do it? Do I deserve to do it? But the curiosity of the question is what keeps me going. I want to know the answer, so I might as well try to find out."

Most of the time, he realises he can't do it the way people want him to. "But I discover a new way, another way."

Two years ago, he was asked to be part of the Olympics opening ceremony in London, by creating a dance work for a projected TV audience of more than one billion people. "I had the biggest doubt. But Danny Boyle [the director] had faith in me. And my doubt and his confidence kind of balanced out," Khan says.

"When it really hit us was when the audience went silent just as we came on. The silence of 80,000 people is the most powerful, loud sound I have ever heard."


iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor), Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, March 6-7, 8.15pm. HK$180-HK$480 Urbtix. This production contains nudity, smoke, loud music and strong light effects. Inquiries: 2824 2430