After the wonder of Desh, Khan’s solo dance performance which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2011, I came to this show expecting an awful lot. Khan is a man who dances beautifully and has the imagination to devise first rate choreography. But after seeing this show, which was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, one wonders whether commissioned work, generating as it does from another, often committee mind-set, is something artists, especially great artists, should take on. Renaissance artists could do commissions and produce brilliant work and even today, architects work in this fashion, with the best of them subsequently creating visionary built spaces. Commissions, however, rarely seem to bring out superlative work in modern painters, writers or performers. I think the base-line is probably this: if you have already been thinking about an idea and a commission comes along, your end product will work; if you are trying to fit your imagination to someone else’s blueprint, the chances are it won’t.
iTMOi (in the mind of Igor [Stravinsky]) has some superb dance sequences and some wonderful visual moments –often the result of Fabiana Piccioli’s excellent lighting design. iTMoi does not use Stravinsky’s music, but rather the work of three commissioned composers: Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. Their work, created in isolation from one another, is then joined to produce an interlinked score. iTMoi opens with bells, screams and discordant music which leads onto a German techno pop score and culminates in softer melodic sounds and songs. By using the work of three composers, one supposes Khan is aiming to replicate the unpredictability of Rite. There are, however, four things he directly borrows from Rite: the first is the concept of sacrifice (here, the sacrifice centres around Abraham’s sacrifice, at God’s command, of his only son, Issac; an idea central to all the Abrahamic religions), the narrative arc of a young girl who dances herself to death. The third borrowing is the use of myth, both religious and folk, to tell the story, and the fourth is the play of thematic opposites- in Rite, this is its sound, in itMoi it is both the dance itself and its accompanying sound.
Myth, because of its clear symbolisation, usually works incredibly well in dance. Here, with the use of the two contrary women figures-one stately in a white wired balloon of a Cecil Beaton style dress and the other, wild in a cut-off shirt dress, the use of the horned figure who prowls the stage, the shaman puppet- master in a black Indian sherwani (think of Keanu Reeves in his long coat in The Matrix), the symbolisation feels a little too overstated. In Rite, the balance between cacophony and harmony works. In iTMoi, the same working principle often feels forced.
Ching Yien Chien is an excellent young girl, both in her solo pieces, which are quite stunning, dance-wise and choreography-wise, and in her face-offs with the authoritative Queen figure (Catherine Schaub Abkarian). Abkarian, after gliding across the stage for much of the production, too has a moment where she shines. Having shovelled up the trouble-maker in the group to the depths of her underskirt, she dances using just her arms, more Bharata Natyam style than khatak (one of the dance forms Khan was trained in). Though the dancers do use khatak moves, their bodies are freer, more modern than they would normally be in a strict interpretation of that dance form. There are South Asian reference points running throughout iTMoi: in the dance, the dress, both the shalwar kameezs and the folk horse like figure, and in its use of puppet silhouettes which recall Nepalese dance. Although there are some magical dance sequences, these parts do not make for a convincing whole and although the narrative of this piece is strong, the dots that join it up are too visible to make it truly engaging.
Everyone is allowed a bad day or less than great piece of work. One waits for the return of Khan the virtuoso.