WITH BEAMING brown eyes, stylishly sculpted facial fuzz and perfect posture, the petite man coming towards me doesn't walk, he glides on to the balcony of the Arts Centre cafe. Pulling out a plastic chair and settling into it like a yogi, he looks like a dance guru. Then he places a pack of cigarettes on the table. 'Ninety-five per cent of British dancers smoke,' he says apologetically. 'It's one bad habit we have.'
Akram Khan is being heralded as an emerging master of modern choreography. The 28-year-old is pushing the boundaries of dance with his contemporary take on kathak, a 500-year-old Indian dance tradition.
He is soaking up the sun, relaxed, radiant and in the midst of a five-month break from exhaustive touring. For once he has time to sit back and reflect. 'When it's a roller coaster you don't have time to reflect or appreciate,' he says. 'It's like when you drop a stone in water and create ripples, except it felt like we were dropping a meteor, creating waves.'
Dressed in simple white tunics and versed in moves that are both ancient and cutting-edge modern, Khan and his dancers juxtapose new forms with the ancient Indian traditions in their shows. The result is a new style of movement that has delighted the dance world.
'Kathak Contemporary is what we call it, but actually I'm not sure what it is,' says Khan. 'It's a new language of movement and it's things I have absorbed through childhood, not just the classical but Michael Jackson, hip-hop.'
Khan was born in London in 1974 to parents from Bangladesh. 'I was too hyperactive as a child,' he says, sipping his English breakfast tea and smiling. 'I needed to be occupied.'
An astute mother took him to the right place: the Academy of Indian Dance, where at the age of three he began to study kathak. It differs from other classical Indian dance in that it has roots in both Hindu and Islamic narratives. It is a pure form of dance that changes from being furiously fast to serenely still. 'Kathak is finding clarity within chaos. The speed you're moving at is very chaotic but at the same time it's extremely precise,' says Khan.
He turned out to be a child prodigy. By the time he graduated from university he had borrowed the techniques of kathak to explore current issues.
By the time he formed the Akram Khan Dance Company in August 2000, his work was earning him awards and invitations - and an envied position as resident choreographer at London's Royal Festival Hall. Last March, the company performed its first full-length show, Kaash, reinforcing his status as a choreography talent.
Kaash literally means 'if' and is inspired by Khan's meditations on the relationship between modern physics and Hindu mythology. The starting point was Hindu gods, black holes, Indian time cycles, tables, creation and destruction. Working with Khan on the project were two celebrity collaborators, both of Asian descent, artists who, as Khan puts it, transcend the simple notions of fusion as living embodiments of British and Indian cultures.
Composer Nitin Sawhney, whose 1999 album Beyond Skin made him a household name in Britain, was making music that merged complex, mathematical Indian rhythms with the twin souls of ancient India and modern city life. He was a fan of Khan's and had provided the music for one of his earlier solo shows.
Divided into three parts, the opening sequence of Kaash signifies Hindu god Shiva's destructive side and is set to a seven-beat time signature to which warriors would traditionally stamp their feet before battle to unite the troops and psyche them up. It is a state, points out Khan, that is alarmingly relevant to today's world.
Khan also needed a set designer who could convey the sense of enormity and nothingness of the big bang. Enter Anish Kapoor, the Turner Prize-winning artist whose immense sculptures had questioned the metaphysical polarities of presence and absence, being and non-being, for decades.
News trickled out of the three uniting, sparking a rush of interest from the British media. 'I know Anish was very worried about the fact that we were three Asians,' Khan says. 'The publicity was huge and it felt like we were the first Asian boy band. The ideal collaboration: would that be more important than the work?'
Since its premiere, reviews of Kaash have been fulsome in their praise. 'We're very much at a beginning and I think that's very exciting for us,' Khan says.
'I think the point where I feel I've found what I'm looking for I'll stop, because that is when it'll become boring. The excitement is searching for it, not finding it.'
The Akram Khan Company presents Kaash, tonight and tomorrow, 8.15pm, at the Academy for Performing Arts Drama Theatre, Wan Chai. Sold out.