By Sharon Hoyer
Choreographer Akram Kahn has gained renown for cross-pollinating contemporary dance with kathak, a traditional Bengali dance form. His work “Bahok, ” an ensemble piece forged from the experiences and histories of eight dancers from around the globe, plays this weekend at the MCA. I spoke with Mr. Kahn over the phone about the piece.
How did the idea for Bahok originate?
It starts from an experience I had in Japan. I was staying in a hotel where a world conference was taking place. I was in the lift and a Japanese woman came in wearing a kimono, an African gentleman came in wearing a traditional African outfit and a couple came in wearing suits. I wanted to ask the Japanese woman about the clothes she was wearing, what the markings on them signified, but the lift was quite small, everyone was looking up at the ceiling and it was rather awkward. The lift went up and I thought that I couldn’t communicate with this woman because maybe she doesn’t speak English or maybe she would think I was being rude, or that I was a stranger imposing on her personal space. And the lift got stuck. After about a minute, everyone starting panicking, including me, speaking different languages. And it occurred to me that in a moment of crisis that we shared together, here comes a situation where everyone has to communicate. I wanted to explore this in my own work.
The body is our home. And the subject is home: what does home mean to us? I realized my body carries my tradition, it carries my religion, it carries my education, it’s a political body. It’s many things. I wanted to explore with different dancers from different cultures: how does that operate? There’s a South Indian guy who has studied martial arts but also contemporary dance, there was the National Ballet of China, but now we have other ballet dancers from Hong Kong, we have a South African dancer who is contemporary-trained but also has strong African tradition of dance, we have Spanish contemporary dancers. So in a way I was using the lift experience, seeing where we would take that using our bodies.
How did directing these dancers from different backgrounds inform your own work?
Originally I created all the material, so it all came out of one body and in a way it was very limited. This time it very much came from them and I was learning how the material was transformed eight different ways. So for me, the vocabulary became richer.
In the description of Bahok, you mention a sense of belonging. Could you expound on that idea?
The belonging is very much about the center, it’s about identity. The world is becoming more global and as we become more global we lose our sense of center. What we put into our luggage is like what we put into our bodies, but what our bodies carry is much richer. It carries our memories, our relationships. One thing that fascinated me about the dancers is that everyone referred to belonging to their childhood house… not their adult house, but their parents’ house. So we explored what each dancer had to say about their childhood home.
For me Bahok is a reflection of how people respond to the situation they’re in. It’s about the dangers of globalization, that there are similarities, but there are also differences and what connects all of us together is human emotion. All people in the world understand the emotion of searching for their identity. All people understand the emotion of missing their home.
Do you feel that there are negative effects of globalization to the creation of art and dance?
I’m aware that there’s a balance. You discover something, but to discover something you have to let go of something else. One of the things that I feel about technology, which has supplied speed to globalization, is a loss of human contact. We’re living in a virtual world more and more, and that’s what’s so powerful about dance. That’s why dance is becoming so popular—especially in Europe, it’s huge—there are programs on TV about competitions big time—because it’s real, it’s human connection with a real human body. On the one hand it’s kind of cheesy, but on the other it’s wonderful. The shape of the way things form in society is out of necessity, in response to the environment. With technology, there is a counter-effect: that we’re trying to connect with human beings, with art and with the body.
At the MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, (312)397-4010. February 26-27 at 7:30pm, February 28 at 3pm. $40.