Review: Gnosis: Akram Khan, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Thursday 28th and Friday 29th April 2011

Those that saw the spiritual intensity of Akram Khan’s choreography in 2010’s Vertical Road will be unsurprised to learn that Gnosis, which conceptually predates that work, has similar - though more personal - themes.

Khan has taken the story of Queen Gandhari from the Hindu epic Mahabharata as inspiration for a dance performance that examines mythical altruism; Gandhari blindfolded herself for life in order to share the world of her blind King, they both die after tragic lives in a forest fire. This second half to the evening is beautifully performed by Khan and Fang-Yi Sheu. In their timing, discord and lonely demise we see the tragedy of the poem reflecting the realities of today’s consumer life. In the final stunning scene, Khan’s death in fire is a metaphor for mental breakdown, his head seemingly detached from his body in convulsion, the physical manifestation of one of Francis Bacon’s tortured souls.

The first half of the show is thankfully much lighter fare, reprising two earlier classical Khatak pieces; Polaroid Feet and Tarana. This is followed by a breathtaking improvisation, in which Khan at times conducts this talented group of musicians through his dance, and his use of ghungru (ankle bells) and feet as percussion. The musicianship and composition is memorable throughout, with echoes of Michael Nyman in this sometimes lush, often sparse, Indian score.

The first half worked brilliantly, showcasing the virtuosity, skill and charm that have made Khan such a draw worldwide. The second half was visually and aurally stunning, though not immediately accessible. I am still pondering the meaning, and it is in that realisation that Khan’s Khatak (dance story-telling) has worked and his mastery revealed. Gnosis is that rare thing; being popular and thought-provoking, and is equally memorable for both.

Andrew Cann