Akram Khan on mortality, truth and commercial imperatives

Described as brilliant, bonkers, bizarre and, of course, terribly British – the artistic element of the Olympic Games opening ceremony concluded with a beautiful work commissioned by the artistic director Danny Boyle who asked Akram Khan to choreograph on the theme of mortality.

Immediately before the athletes entered the stadium, Khan, with his group of 50 dancers, and a 10-year-old boy danced to the hymn, Abide With Me, sung by Emile Sandé.

Khan has explained that the dancers were meant to symbolise spirits and the boy to symbolise hope and legacy. At the end of the piece, Khan lifted the boy as if to comfort him, and guided him into the circle of dancers.

The program for the ceremony described the story as a dramatisation of “the struggle between life and death using such powerful images of mortality as dust and the setting sun”.

It followed a video tribute showing images of recently deceased relatives and other loved ones of those in the stadium. The commentator for the ceremony asked the audience to pause for a moment of silence for “friends and family who could not be here tonight”.

Somehow the tribute to the dead and the dance became fused and interpreted as a reference to the victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London.

And this, in turn, appeared to be the reason NBC, which telecast the ceremony in the United States, cut the dance segment and replaced it with an interview with the host of American Idol, Ryan Seacrest and the Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps.

NBC said it had had no indication the dance segment was a reference to the July 7 attacks.

Khan was never officially told that the American network eliminated his work. He told Associated Press: “I am really sad that I couldn’t show the work in America, and that really upsets me, because I don’t think it’s any less or more than any of the other pieces.

“Is it not accessible enough? Is it not commercial enough?

“It brings to mind the question – but maybe I’m wrong because I don’t really know the reason – but it brings to mind a question that maybe it’s too truthful, and I think that says it all really”.

Whatever the reason, NBC showed extraordinary insensitivity in the way it eliminated one important part of the artistic whole, and particularly a part that was danced to a hymn universally recognised and loved for all sorts of reasons. It was one of Gandhi’s favourite songs, was said to be played as the Titanic sunk, and is sung at numerous funerals and major sporting events.

If it was intended partly a tribute to the bombing victims, then that made sense as the attacks in the tube and on the bus at Russell Square took place the day after the announcement that London had won the games. I was among the crowd as that announcement was made to the accompaniment of ticker tape, screams and cheers from a huge crowd in Trafalgar Square.

A few days later I returned to the square to witness the quiet and sombre crowd who gathered to hear tributes to the dead and honour the heroism of those who came to the rescue of those caught up in the tragedy.

Unfortunately, no high quality video record is available yet of Khan’s Olympic choreography, but the clip below indicates the way in which Khan is searching for his own spiritual path in relation to one of his works, Vertical Road.

It’s good to know that Khan is dancing again after suffering a major injury to his Achilles tendon followed by an operation and long recuperation.

Khan explained: “I could have walked again without the operation. But I could never have danced at the speed that I do. I would have had no power”.

In October, he will travel to Australia to perform his solo, DESH, at the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Premiering in September 2011, the work – meaning Homeland in Bengali – is a reflection on his family’s background.

The Melbourne Festival, curated by Brett Sheehy, is strong on dance this year and includes ‘I don’t believe in outer space’ by William Forsythe’s company, ‘An Act of Now’, the first work choreographed for Chunky Move by its new artistic director, Anouk van Dijk, Lucy Guerin’s new piece, ‘Weather’, and Kate Champion’s ‘Never Did Me Any Harm’.

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Akram Khan and dancers, London Olympics 2012

Emeli Sande sings Abide With Me during the opening ceremony, Photo © Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images