[Interview] London 2012: Akram Khan discusses Opening Ceremony's 'Mortality' dance

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Akram Khan 
London: Akram Khan choreographed a prominent section of Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, which saw a group of 50 dancers perform under an imaginary sun. 

Boyle invited Khan to choreograph the section after watching a performance of his piece Vertical Road, which explores similar themes. 

Boyle’s brief to Khan was one word: “Mortality”. “I thought he was joking,” says Khan. “Mortality at the Olympic Games? I thought it would be a bit of a downer. But after thinking about it, we got hooked.” 

Farooq Chaudhry, producer of The Akram Khan Company, explains, “The idea of mortality is great because it represents a lot of the vision of the ceremony itself. We are all normal people and, whether we’re superstar athletes or the guy next door, we’re all going to die and leave something behind. That concept is very powerful and very compelling for the audience.” 

The section featured 50 specially selected professional dancers, a nine-year-old boy and Khan himself. Set to the voice of Emeli Sandé singing Abide With Me, the piece was “a moment of reflection and contemplation following the vibrant and astonishing, high-tempo proceedings,” says Chaudhry. 

Boyle was responsible for choosing the popular British hymn Abide With Me. 

“When Danny first played it to us, I was a bit nervous – it would not have been my first choice,” says Khan. “The melody didn’t strike me to begin with. It felt too classical, too Western. But after a while, I started to appreciate it more. The words are very powerful, and that’s what struck us. Once words create images in your mind, there is a connection.” 

Creating the score for the dance threw them out of their comfort zone, Khan admits. 

“We had to work with a whole new set of parameters. We’ve never worked with more than eight dancers, and now we had to choreograph 50. We’re used to 120-minute performances, but we had to boil it down to five minutes. And then there was the challenge of space – the performance was a 360-degree show, but it also had to work on camera. There wasn’t one bottom line, there were multiple bottom lines.” 

Of the 50 dancers in the performance, eight came from the Akram Khan Company and the rest were auditioned specially. 

“The difficulty was that I didn’t know what the end result of the performance would be, so I wasn’t sure what kind of dancer I needed. So I played it safe and found technically strong dancers,” explains Khan. “When I do company projects, I want individuals. But I wasn’t interested in that here; I wanted 50 dancers breathing as if they were one body.” 

Coming up with ideas for the performance as “not very challenging”, he adds. “Danny’s creative team were already feeding me with so many ideas. You just said one word and they’d have 100 ideas, from the set design to the costumes. Danny’s team was excited about working with me, and we were excited about working with them. We immediately felt at home, like we were part of his creative family.” 

Each dancer at the Opening Ceremony had a “click” track in their ear microphone, with a beat for them to dance to, explains Chaudhry. “The dancers were moving at a very different speed to the lyrics. We wanted to create a strange tension between the heartbeat, the lyrics of the song and this very driving, erratic rhythmic underbelly.” 

“It was an Indian mathematical pattern, but the audience will never hear it,” adds Khan. “All the audience heard was what we produced through our bodies.” 

Born in London into a family of Bangladeshi origin, Khan began dancing at seven and studied with the renowned kathak dancer and teacher Sri Pratap Pawar. He began presenting solo performances of his work in the late 1990s, maintaining his commitment to classical kathak as well as developing modern work. 

Following the Opening Ceremony, the Akram Khan Company will resume a global tour. Khan’s Olivier award-winning solo production of DESH will go to Rome, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Athens and Paris before returning to London’s Sadler’s Wells in October. His other works Gnosis and Vertical Road will tour Germany, India, Taiwan, the USA and France. 

Has choreographing part of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony been Khan’s highest honour so far? “It’s too early to say. All I know is that I’ve never felt that way before. I felt awe; it was really overwhelming and emotional. Working with Danny and his team on the Opening Ceremony has been an exciting and humbling experience,” Khan says. 

“I was daunted, but always felt honoured and proud. I’ve tried to reconnect our intimacy and creativity to this gigantic world, to all our roots and to our hopes for the future. 

“It seems almost natural for arts and sports to sit side by side: in both, we desire to test the very limits of what we’re capable of doing. In sports, human endurance; in arts, human imagination.”
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