World premiere, Victoria Theatre, Singapore, Singapore Arts Festival

Ballettanz 1 Aug 2004English

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A man arrested in mid-fall. The opening image of Ma recalls the iconic 9/11 photograph of the nameless body plunging to its death. A frozen moment to which Akram Khan adds a plaintive requiem to pronounce a world in ceaseless unrest.

Since his early oeuvre – Loose in Flight, Fix, and Rush – Khan has been enacting notions of relativity and gravity. His largest ensemble creation to date, Ma also marks his new interest in shifting the abstract to a more figurative framework. His trademark incantations of ‘tak’ (sky) and ‘tum’ (earth) not only wed motion and rhythm, classicism and innovation, they also signify corporeality as earthly and mortal, quite literally so.

Garbed in burnished red, he and six dancers tow once more a unique lexicon that has thrilled world audiences: rapid motorics fired by traditional kathak and contemporary release technique. There are menacing darts, arm-chops, and torso-swivels. There is metronome-like precision and mercurial temperament. The bare stage is framed by long vertical taut strings in the background, and a cellist and Indian musician on both ends. Sculpting the space with Mikki Kunttu’s lighting, Khan expands his choreographic plot and intricate patterns, while letting the dancers’ individuality shine.

Is that a growing seedling, a tendril, or a tree branch that we discern? There is a dialogue with nature with gestures of comforting and eavesdropping. In a dim sequence, the dancers pile and reel their bodies to depict mother earth either at birth or under pillage. Fecund and arid, desecrated and regenerating, earth becomes the ecological symptom for the universal human condition.

The most overt embodiment, however, arrives in the form of speech. A dramaturgical leap from pure music, vocals and muscular dance into premature theatricality. The brand of quirky anecdotal story-telling which acts to diffuse pensive aura and clinch audience empathy, inspired either by latter-day Alain Platel or cardboard Pina Bausch. The abortion of sheer dance and reluctance to push its articulatory limits. The inability of Hanif Kureishi’s twee text on childhood longing and forgetting to incite politics and irony the way that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s theatre does. The tension that Khan so carefully calibrates loses its grip.

Which brings us back to the sensational image of the falling man. The moment of fragility and inevitability that has been consumed, fetishised, and banalised by mass media exposure. The stage where the dominant rhetoric and cultural order of the day directs the hubris of the fall and in fact out-performs the individual action. In naming his cultural identity and creativity as ‘confusion’, Khan risks eschewing discursive reflexivity towards the cultural and political complexities and the particular strategies embedded in his practice. Until one is alert to the location and frames of the spectacle, the image of the falling man remains static and absent of critical speech.