As Akram Khan’s Kaash begins, a man, his back to us, stands gazing at a suspended black rectangle; a woman walks in. Darkness falls. Then the gray backdrop behind the rectangle turns red, and the sound of a single beating stick is swallowed by roaring, crashing music. Let the cataclysm begin.
The superb hour-long Kaash, whose U.S. premiere I saw at Jacob’s Pillow in August, deals in formally stunning ways with the cycle of destruction and rebirth. (Shiva, the destroyer in Hindu myth, also created life through his cosmic dance.) The London-based Khan trained with a Kathak master in his native Bangladesh and later at Britain’s Northern School of Contemporary Dance. His style cannot be termed “fusion.” He hints at Kathak’s strong, rhythmic footwork, and he designs the body in space with a linear precision akin to that of the North Indian style; he also has recourse to all the compositional strategies and movement possibilities of Western modern dance. But nothing in his choreography looks like traditional vocabulary.
Sustained by Anish Kapoor’s set, Aideen Malone’s lighting, and a score by Nitin Sawhney (with additional music by John Oswald, played by the Kronos Quartet), Khan and his four dancers build a world in which rhythmic patterns form lines, cross, disperse, skein together, and unite, borne by powerful, resourceful dancing. Lunges, chassés, sweeping arm gestures, sudden drops to the floor, twisting torsos, and stepping feet comprise the substance of phrases that repeat and grow. Five dancers—and you see an army on the march. Their pauses from rapid motion and their splitting off into brief solos and duets only strengthen their comradeship.
The second section is less polished, rawer. In the aftermath of the previous, furiously precise adventure, Moya Michael crawls and claws and thrashes along the floor as if she were trapped under a two-foot ceiling. But she rises, and Khan calms her, holding her hand against his head, putting his hand over her eyes. Eulalie Ayguade, Inn Pang Ooi, and Shanell Winlock enter to join in more isolated behavior. We hear distorted radio voices, desultory sounds; the dancers create a counterpoint to Kahn’s fast-tongued vocalizing.
A single apocalyptic sound announces a solo by Khan, a marvel of a dancer—fluid yet exact, controlled but exuding power. He’s wearing red now. Ayguade whispers to him while explosions reverberate around them like echoes from legends. Finally, the dancers return to the patterns with which they began—expanding them, reconfiguring them, making them seem reborn. Finally only Ooi is left onstage, as he was an hour before, but now he’s slowly moving. Is this the end, or the beginning?
Wendy Rogers’s Wild Life/a movement refuge also begins with a red light, but it speaks more of accommodation than of destruction. In her publicity photos, a tacky neon motel sign coexists with Southern California palms, and a life-sized plaster horse stands ready to munch a blaze of geraniums. Rogers, now based in Riverside, California, is a gentle, imaginative poet of choreography. She culls beautiful or clumsy or exuberant or pensive fragments of movement and behavior and assembles them into a world you wouldn’t mind living in. Out of strangeness, she creates order. Toward the end of the piece, the long opening sequence is repeated (but with Rogers joining it), and the fact that something so odd can be familiar is curiously reassuring.
The dancers create landscapes both urban and pastoral with their bodies, but forming ingenious arches and bridges and groves only brings out their humanity. Four of them cuddle down to sleep, and when Jennifer Twilley finishes her solo, she sits on them for a moment and thinks, then beds down on them, at which point they roll away, rise, and form a line while she goes back to her dancing. Wild Life is full of surprises. A big jump comes as an eruption. In the middle of an alert solo, while the sound of rain takes over from a variety of musical selections, Monica Bill Barnes starts vibrating her knees in and out like a Samoan dancer. Then she runs Christopher Williams around, her hands over his hands covering his ears. When she stumbles and falls, he picks up her hand and listens to it.
For about an hour we watch this interesting world and the way, with sensitive lighting by Carol Mullins, Barnes, Rogers, Twilley, Williams, Allyson Green, Michael Miller, and Rommel Salveron alter our perception of the space; what we took to be boundaries open into wilderness. Personal limits dissolve in group endeavor. We glimpse what might have been fragments of a story, remembered moments. At one point, we hear Susan Stone’s recorded voice, reading from Hildegarde Flanner’s 1950s booklet A Vanishing Land. She speaks of the great Polish actress Helena Modjeska and what vistas she might have seen from the farm she bought in 1870s California. But Rogers’s delicate yet lusty, warm-spirited choreography sends no messages of nostalgia for vanished nature or anger at human destruction of the environment. She focuses instead on a cooperative changing landscape of relationships in which structure and chaos maintain equilibrium by dancing together.