Film and theatre director Danny Boyle caught up with Akram Khan during the Until the Lions rehearsals. Listen in on the former collaborators, who worked together on the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, as they ponder sources of inspiration, questions of gender and the struggles of creating an artistic work.
Danny: Tell us why you are returning to the Mahabharata for your new production?
Akram: A female poet called Karthika Naïr, who created DESH with us, approached me because she has written a collection of poems on female characters from the Mahabharata. When I appeared in Peter Brook’s version, I was 13, and I don’t remember the women being super celebrated. They were not the main protagonists. Looking back, I can see that it gave a very male perspective, which is often the case with mythology. I remember the women in the company being incredible actors but also treating me like a son because I was missing my Mum a lot. I got very close to these wonderful actors and it left me fascinated.
Danny: The last time I saw you rehearsing was for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. For those of us who don’t know enough about contemporary dance, how do you go about inspiring your dancers – is it through vocabulary or by example?
Akram: Intention, especially narrative intention. When I’m rehearsing a new work, I do look at the technicality but all the performances must have an intention. They can’t just be a series of steps or movements. There has to be a meaning behind what the dancers are doing, they have to know where they are going, and how they exit. It’s very theatre-driven. Having said that, one of the questions that constantly challenges me is how literal I should make the work, versus how much I leave ambiguous or suggestive. Does that bother you when you make a piece of theatre?
Danny: Well, one of the joys I find about going down to Sadler’s Wells or somewhere similar to see dance, is that I can let that go. Narrative structure is a very strict discipline in the world I work in – which is theatre, film or television – and you can only get away without it for a couple of minutes before you’re lost…So, did you read Karthika Naïr’s book before you conceived the production for the Roundhouse?
Akram: She sent me a couple of poems from her book written from the character Amba’s perspective. What really inspired me is that the poems are written in a mathematical, physical, visceral way. They are phenomenally written but also phenomenally designed.
Image © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Danny: What I’m really interested in is how you start to work from there? In film or television, we begin with a read-through where we all share the text. I don’t know how useful it is but it is the tradition, it settles everyone in, making them feel as though they’re on the same page, literally. Do you do that?
Akram: Well, we sent the poems around to everybody and Karthika was also in the collaborators’ meetings, so we all started from the same place. But what is challenging is finding the right time to let go of the poetry. When you start a process like this, the work has to change and leave the page at some point. The words are there to inspire us but we’re not serving them. We’ve had to free ourselves from the words so it’s not too specific to Hindu mythology. It has to be universal. Basically, the piece is about love, betrayal, revenge … that’s it … that’s the essence.
The other thing is that the Mahabharata, through Karthika’s poems, reveals so much about the way in which females are regarded in that society. The title of her book, Until the Lions, comes from an African proverb. The hunter will always tell the story until the lions can have their say. The victorious always write history – never the losers. What I loved about her approach is that she’s taken it from the female characters, the unsung heroes, if you like. Amba is not necessarily a hero but she’s a strong woman who defies what society has – out of fear – come to regard as right and wrong. Isn’t that so relevant to what is happening in the world today?
Danny: The great British film director David Lean also said that you have to declare your intentions in the first ten minutes.
Akram: Originally, I was going to play this as a solo, all three characters, because I am fascinated by gender. When I was young, my school friends, who were more macho and played football, regarded me as ambiguous. I danced, I used to put on make-up and sometimes I’d wear my Mum’s sari to play female roles. Do you find actors can be similarly ambiguous, shifting from female to male, or vice versa?
Danny: It’s funny hearing you talk about your background because it’s basically Billy Elliot. And I come from a similar community to Billy Elliot: quite macho and working class. And our fear was always ballet. When you move into the arts, though, you get a chance to embrace the female side of yourself and there’s a lack of posturing. I think great actors often have access to both genders and I’ve worked with many who’ve shown this quality. Recently it was Michael Fassbender who is known as a very intense male actor, but I found his movement to be quite female. I remember reading somewhere that young children can always tell the gender of another child, that they reveal gender through movement. And little children who have no real programming just instinctively understand that. I’ve no idea whether that’s true but it made me think of your script, when your character Beeshma recognises that Shikhandi is actually female. How will you dramatise that?
Akram: We’re struggling right now. When we theatricalise the scenario, it’s very clear but it lacks choreography. It’s a real challenge to reveal these characters through dance, especially for people who don’t know the story. Without words to hold on to, everything becomes ambiguous so the choreography has to speak of this in some way – it’s a really challenging piece to take into movement.
Danny: But when you watch dance, it’s a relief not to have to hang on to narrative quite so rigidly. There’s a feeling that you can watch something, and zone in and out with a wonderful freedom. You reset your brain and enjoy the experience of the story being told through the physicality of the performers in front of you. It’s not quite like film or theatre actors who have to disappear into the story. With dance, you’re always aware that this is being expressed through a dancer and I think that’s a beautiful part of the process.
Image © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Danny: What’s your favourite dance in a film or musical? Who do you admire?
Akram: I really enjoyed Billy Elliot … there’s Charlie Chaplin … I love Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Michael Jackson.
Danny: I’d love to film a musical. I love Carlos Saura and Bob Fosse’s stuff.
Akram: They’re genius, of course. So, you want to film a musical?
Danny: For a film director, if you can make an original story musical where characters break into song, that’s the most difficult thing to do. Song can be more challenging than dance because people do dance as part of normal life but to sing is so vulnerable and open. We once did a film called Millions about two kids growing up in the northwest and we should have turned that into a musical.
Adapted from conversation recorded and edited in 2016.
To find out more about Until the Lions click here