In the mind of Akram

They say that all the characters in our dreams represent us, the dreamer.

If Akram Khan’s production, iTMOi, is the dream-like interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s state of mind when he wrote The Rite of Spring, then the parade of characters in the dance work represents the multiple facets of Stravinsky.

Or perhaps that should be all the characteristics of Akram Khan whose dream it is.

The condensed title of Khan’s production is an acronym of the full title (in the mind of igor), but it can also be interpreted as “I” and “Moi”. (Yes, I know, it’s a bit twee, but that could be the reasoning).

To mark the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite, Khan set aside one of the most significant scores of the 20th century and took his own personal musical path.

For iTMOi, he commissioned three composers, Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost, to write a complex score that begins with the chiming of bells and blends the music of the three composers with the sound of static, breathing and the shouting of incantations.

In Khan’s production, the symbolic figures include a horned creature that crawls on all fours, a ranting preacher, a woman in a white crinoline skirt attached to a bodice revealing one breast, a twisting, turning and upside-down-falling dervish, and a young woman in sheer white who, sprinkled with white, chalky powder, seems destined to be the sacrificial victim.

The production, danced by an ensemble of 11 (Khan isn’t one of them)
is one of the most challenging and innovative contemporary dance works I’ve seen for many years.

The rituals performed in iTMOi signify sacrifice, death and re-birth – all references to Stravinsky’s Rite – but Khan has diverged from the 1913 conception to establish his own interpretation of a community bound by a cycle of rituals.

His production ended a brief season at the Sydney Opera House yesterday [1 September] and now moves on to Dresden and then 19 other cities around the world in the next four months. (iTMOi’s world premiere was in Grenoble in May 2013.)

Aware of its offhand reception in London, where some critics dismissed it as fragmented and bizarre, and the score “a fractious collage of thrashy synth, faux-folk and electroacoustic exotica. , I was surprised by its power, cohesion, imagery, and Khan’s unique choreographic voice.

The only aspect I question is why Khan was confident enough to present the work as a depiction of the inner workings of the mind of Stravinsky.

Joel Jenkins, Khan’s researcher for iTMOi, must have spent much time investigating the composer’s life but in the end, a choreographer has to create his or her own story.

Khan has explained that his work explores the human condition: “A rupture in the mind, fierce resistance to convention, a death in the body, and a birth in the soul, all remind us that the mind and imagination are wild and self-generating”.

With this emphasis on resistance and rebirth Khan might have also considered the themes in two other ballets composed by Stravinsky for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) as well as Nijinsky’s choreography for L’apres-midi d’un faune (1912).

One of iTMOi’s characters, the creature with long, straight antelope-like horns, could well be a reflection of Nijinsky’s animalistic movement in L’apres-midi.

iTMOi begins with the preacher, a man possessed, shouting phrases and single words, among them Abraham and Isaiah, (a reference to the story in Genesis in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son).

But the focus soon moves to the central character, the woman in the white crinoline, (Catherine Schaub Abkarian), a grotesque, white-faced figure who could be an earth mother, monster, priestess or a combination of all of them, but is certainly a woman in fierce control.

She moves at a chillingly slow pace, her legs hidden by the hooped skirt under which she absorbs the body of a man who protests the apparent choice of the sacrificial victim, and then rebirths him (shades of the huge skirts in Jiri Kylian’s Sarabande).

He is dispatched by the community – flayed to death – and the young woman takes over the commanding role.

The sacrificial cycle has ended only to begin again.

The performers are exceptional in the clarity of their dancing, in styles that veer from Butoh to acrobatics.

The young woman, Ching-Ying Chien, performs an outstanding solo in which she moves as freely as if her limbs were hinged by strings, while the male dancer who takes the role of the dervish rotates, tumbles in a manic and impressive sequence that ends with him upside down, moving his legs and feet with as much expression as if they were his arms and hands.

Kimie Nakano’s costumes very effectively contrast black, white and brown with subtle jewel shades of green, blue, purple, gold and scarlet.

When Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting casts an orange glow on the back of the set, the dancers appear as black, silhouetted puppets.

Her exceptional lighting and such strong visual imagery helps iTMOi stay in the mind in much the same way as a luminous and mysterious painting remains in the memory long after we have left a gallery.

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iTMOi, Catherine Schaub Abkarian, photo © J. Louis Fernandez

iTMOi, Hannes Langolf and Kristina Alleyne, photo © J Louis Fernandez

iTMOi, the final scene, photo © J.Louis Fernandez

Ching-Ying Chien, photo © J.Louis Fernandez

Catherine Schaub Abkarian, photo © J. Louis Fernandez

iTMOi, photo © J Louis Fernandez