Curators: Celine Gaubert, Mavin Khoo, Christine Maupetit, Maxime Dos and Akram Khan
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Akram Khan Company, The Silent Burn Project looks not only at an established creative reputation, but a dance company with a substantial interest in making work with a social and political conscience.
Launched in 2000, the Akram Khan Company brings together choreographer Akram Khan’s training in South Asian classical dance, chiefly Kathak, with his knowledge of contemporary dance. Thinking beyond boundaries of classical and contemporary, the Akram Khan Company’s remit is to “take risks, think big, explore the unfamiliar.”
Uploaded onto the Akram Khan Company YouTube channel, The Silent Burn Project is a digital programme of dance, music, documentary and interviews, including a sit-down with company founders Akram Khan and producer Farooq Chaudry. Beautifully stitched together, this programme has been designed as an immersive experience, and should ideally be watched in a single sitting. Khan, in discussing the naming of The Silent Burn Project, admits that until he formed the Akram Khan Company with Chaudry, “silence was burning within [him]” – a need to express and articulate was being denied. Twenty years on, as we find ourselves in a world on pause, Khan suggests there is no better time to “collectively unearth our past”. Silence is over.
The Silent Burn Project looks at how shifts in the perception of ‘Otherness’ have contributed to the artistic landscape, even during lockdown. There are group discussions with artists and academics. As the first African-American woman to be promoted to Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland discusses how the pandemic has forced everyone to feel “what it’s like to be isolated, to not have a voice” – in other words, she says, the Black experience, pandemic or not.
The celebration of Akram Khan also focuses on his creative legacy. New work is interspersed throughout The Silent Burn Project – standout performances from Theo TJ Lowe and Ching-Ying Chien get the blood pumping. In a stunning snapshot of contemporary dance, company regular Yen-Ching Lin dances on a deserted beach. Lin leans forward, reaching to somewhere beyond the camera’s reach. The piece is fiercely impactful, creating lyrical shapes and pulses of movement. The performances invert the rules of traditional Kathak (with its emphasis on the hands and feet), as dancers arch their backs and stretch their limbs. The contained nuance of Kathak is reinterpreted, as Akram Khan’s dancers fill the space unapologetically.
In behind-the-scenes documentary Symphony of Fingerprints, rehearsal director Mavin Khoo talks about getting the dancers used to emotionally and physically working at their peak, and watching the Company’s dancers – in presentation and in rehearsal – these are individuals coming together to not only tell a story, but to embody it. To stage an Akram Khan production is a painstaking process: this is not just about perfecting technique, but getting layers of meaning (artistic, social, personal) into the dance. To make dance accessible to a mainstream audience, The Silent Burn Project illuminates what Chaudry calls Khan’s “courage to destroy”. It’s all in the edit. Deciding what to strip away can often be more crucial than what remains.
The aim of The Silent Burn Project was always going to be ambitious, but there is a real sense, after watching this programme, that you not only understand how the Akram Khan Company works, but what it stands for. This is a dance company that thinks very carefully about what it says, and how it says it. The Kathak tradition is rooted in the ability to tell stories. What matters to Khan is whose story we are telling. By using the influences of traditional and contemporary dance, and allowing one to inform the other, Khan’s choreography is not only a celebration of the past, but a bold and expansive step into the unknown.