Akram Khan

This week I was lucky enough to see the opening night performance of Akram Khan’s bahok at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and take a master class with two of the company dancers. Jenni sent me the video below and told me I’d love it, which got me excited so we went to the show together after class on Thursday. It was AMAZING. The master class was taught by Shanell Winlock and Eulalia Ayguade Farro at LINES Dance Center yesterday (Saturday). It was definitely intense, but also wonderfully enjoyable. More after the break.

Description of the show from the YBCA page:

Named after a Bengali word meaning ‘carrier,’ bahok explores the ways in which the body carries national identity and a sense of belonging. Eight dancers from diverse cultures, traditions and dance backgrounds—Chinese, Korean, Indian, Slovakian, South African and Spanish—act out their attempts to communicate through dramatic dance and spoken vocabulary as they wait out their airport limbo, their destination unknown. Khan joins forces with long-time musical collaborator Nitin Sawhney, renowned for his multi award-winning compositions, who has created an original score for bahok. Originally a collaboration between the Akram Khan Company and the National Ballet of China, bahok is dance and storytelling inspired by the exploration of cultural identity in a globalised world. (Running Time: 70 min, no intermission)

I didn’t really know what to expect from the performance, but I certainly wasn’t expecting dance theatre. It brought back to memories of Destiny Arts, though with a very different tone, of course. Each dancer had a definite character and their “theme” – a section of choreography – would surface several times over the course of the piece. There were also a definite portions of acting and story, which tied it back to ballet more than I’ve seen in any other modern dance group. The whole thing – dancing, choreography, staging, character, scenes of dialogue, and the set (a giant railway board) – worked together to produce a fluid piece of work. It certainly didn’t feel 70 minutes long. I didn’t want it to end.

There were portions of choreography that were so simple, yet the repetition by the group allowed single movements – an arm thrown forward, a dip of the body – to pop off the stage and grab your eye. The arm swing section was especially magical.

It’s hard to describe dance in words so I hope I’ll remember the piece over time.

I signed up for the master class after finding out about the performance because I figured it was an amazing opportunity, but I got more and more nervous about it as time went on because it was listed as one for “intermediate to advanced” dancers. I wouldn’t put myself in that range so I was afraid I might be flailing about in the back. For most of the class that wasn’t the case, though the floorwork section from an earlier Akram Khan piece definitely tripped me up.

We started with Eulalia (who played the slightly crazy girl in bahok with all the pieces of paper) warming up the room by having us walk 9 times straight side, 8 diagonal, 7 straight front, etc etc down to 1. Since we always ended on the right foot this sometimes required a ball change, which was harder to remember as we went faster and faster and finally ended up running. Then Eulalia chose 10 people at random and we all ran around the room until she called out a number at which point the person with that number would fall and we’d all have to run over to catch them. Only one person fell without being caught. We were out of breath and connected after those two exercises. It was definitely a smart warm-up for such a packed room.

Then Shanell (who was the one carrying her father’s shoes) gave us a lesson in Kathak. I was the only one in the room, from what I could tell, who had had any exposure at all to the style (and that was a 1.5 hour SPLASH class in high school). We learned how to gesture to the 9 corners of the box around us, initiating with the wrist, following the middle finger, and how to do half and full flowers. Then we put together a short, but FAST combination that used all these gestures. It was beautiful and took a lot of brainpower. The end of the combination transitioned into more modern dance, which was where I felt more comfortable, but the pairing of Kathak and modern was jarring for my body so I didn’t quite do justice to the modern section. I imagine it’s something I’d do better with over time.

Next, Eulalia taught us the floorwork section from the Akram Khan piece before bahok. It was disappointing that we didn’t get to learn something from the piece we’d seen, but this was just as interesting and fluid. Probably less challenging, though as I mentioned earlier it still stumped me. I won’t be able to describe it, but I’ll say that the most frustrating thing was how many people there were and the inability to ask her to teach it to us in smaller groups. We did go through dancing it in groups, but I didn’t really have a feel for what we were doing yet for the first few rounds. I’d say we spent most of the 2 hr class on this section.

The last thing we did was just plain fun (though it’s what’s left with me with the most bruises). Shanell and Eulalia taught us a “Matrix-style fight scene” using dance, which we did in partners. I followed Shanell. We’d do one move in 8 counts then go back to the start position, then the first move again and add a second move for a second count of 8, then 3 etc. It consisted of a hit, hit release, hit release strike, hit release strike dodge (Matrix-style backwards lean), hit release strike dodge parried strike throw kick duck fall. My partner and I didn’t hold back enough on the first few tries so I have bruises on my arm from the repeated first hit. Ah well. Battle scars!

On the whole, the best thing about this master class was that there was no sense of judgment by the teachers or the professional dancers in the room of each other or those of us who were more amateurish. It was an environment of supportive learning that challenged everyone and allowed us to experiment with a new style.

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