Reading Akram Khan’s bio, you might expect his choreography to be a ragout of influences: the North Indian Kathak style he first trained in and still performs; Peter Brook, in whose Mahabharata he acted; his training in contemporary dance in his native Britain; his work with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Brussels; and maybe the Michael Jackson videos he admired as a kid. You may discern these, but Khan’s career is on a rocket-to-the moon course in part because he has created a distinctive and vivid movement style. Not many choreographers today put inventing a vocabulary at the top of their “to do” lists.
In the stunning 2004 Ma, as in his 2002 Kaash, the stamps, spins, and slicing gestures of Kathak whip through space without loss of clarity, along with low-to-the-ground lunges and sudden drops that bring martial arts to mind. Duan Ni, the first to solo in Ma, uses her arms like swords, her body like a drawn bow; whirling across the stage, she seems to sweep it clean. Yet for all the precision and power of Khan’s movement, it’s also sensuous, elastic, and significantly human.
Ma, which means both earth and mother, is a luminous spectacle. Mikki Kuntu’s lighting design creates drama with a row of white floor lamps that shine toward us from the back of the stage, overhead lights that pour beams down like showerheads, and more. The dancers’ shadows loom on the back wall. Along that wall and framing the musicians on either side of the stage, illur malus islandus has hung white bags of earth (or seeds) that barely touch the floor. In this community, vocalist Faheem Mazhar, percussionist B C Manjunath, cellist Natalie Rozario, and flautist Lisa Mallet wear the same brown and reddish pants outfits (some with draped overskirts) as the seven dancers (costumes by Tony Aaron Wood and Kei Ito).
Earth and sky are sometimes confounded. Eulalia Ayguade braces herself on two hands and one leg, points the other leg straight up, and tells us a story (Nikoleta Rafaelisova, at ease in the same pose, kibitzes). A barren woman eager for offspring is told by the gods to plant seed. When only trees grow, she learns that the love she feels for the trees is what she’d feel for children. The text (Hanif Kureishi is credited with shaping it) also refers to the legend of the baobab tree, turned upside down in punishment (its bare branches resemble roots), and Mazhar first sings his caressingly melodies while suspended upside down. Khan later tells a story of hanging like that from a tree branch as a child. His mother hadn’t time to answer his questions; perhaps they’d fall out of his head, and the earth would whisper answers. But passages of text are infrequent. Riccardo Nova’s music envelops the dancers in a mystical weaving that becomes dense when Manjunath intones rapid barrages of rhythmic syllables, or when Khan also vocalizes and engages in a traditional Kathak rhythmic “dialogue” with Manjunath’s mridangam.
The fertile plots of dancing—solos, duets, groups moving in lines and circles—also yield traces of narrative. Ayguade travels monkey-like around the stage on two hands and one foot (the other leg pointing skyward) and smacks a hand over Mazhar’s mouth to stop his singing; then she lopes over to Rafaelisova, who’s been lying motionless for some time, and prods her gently. It’s Khan who eventually hauls Rafaelisova into the extraordinary position the others have assumed: Legs spread, they bend forward until they can support themselves on their toes and the tops of their heads (arms winging to the sides).
Sometimes the dancers (including Navala Chaudhari and Young Jin Kim) thrash and bang against the floor, as if the earth were quaking in rebellion. That’s what they’re doing as the lights finally dim, except that a couple of them have assumed the “tree” position—planted, one leg flourishing upward.