Creating a dance performance for the Olympics was "humbling and challenging because I had to touch people - you can't do that with superficial pieces", says the British-Bangladeshi dancer Akram Khan, who choreographed a prominent section of the London Olympics opening ceremony.
Khan is in India on a six-city tour as part of The Park's New Festival 2012, for which he and his company performed Gnosis, based on the Indian epic Mahabharata, in which Queen Gandhari blindfolds her eyes to imitate her blind husband. The stunning piece, which explores the themes of inner knowledge, and darkness and light, brought Khan standing ovations.
"He is a magician," says Shruti Rai, a young Indian dancer in Bangalore, after watching Khan's virtuoso kathak (a type of Indian classical dance) solo on stage before the intermission. "He takes kathak and makes it so much more."
Khan's genius lies in his intuitive understanding of juxtapositions: of space, time and energy. He mixes speed with stillness, the tabla with western drums and swaying movements with staccato rhythms. The theme for all his work comes from his perspective as an immigrant.
His latest work, Desh, talks about country, homeland and exile, while Gnosis is about vision and the role of women in society. "Indian myths have fairly powerful male figures," says Khan. "But what about the women? I want to focus on the women."
Khan has visited India previously as part of Chennai's The Other Festival. "Dancing in India is very important to me because when I was young, I was never accepted as a classical dancer," he says, relaxing in the patio lounge of the Park Hotel, Bangalore, after a performance. "I was always told that you need to go [to India] and learn from the masters. But masters can only guide you to a certain level. They don't have all the answers."
Khan, 38, grew up in an immigrant Bangladeshi family in the UK and began dancing at the age of 7, learning kathak from the famous Indian dance guru Sri Pratap Pawar. At the age of 13, Khan was cast in Sir Peter Brook's Mahabharata and toured with the company for two years. He trained in contemporary dance and established the Akram Khan Company in 2000. Since then, he has collaborated with the likes of the artist Anish Kapoor, the writer Hanif Kureishi, the actress Juliette Binoche and the musician Nitin Sawhney to produce well-received shows.
"Some dancers are happy doing the same old 'Krishna-Radha' [characters from the Mahabarata] kathak pieces," Khan explains. "But you have to go under the skin of these pieces and make a difference, because the world has moved on. The concentration span of today's audiences is very different from the time when these pieces were created."
Last year, Khan embarked on what his most ambitious project so far: a work for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The show's mastermind, the filmmaker Danny Boyle, offered him only one word as guidance: mortality. He also chose the slow British ballad, Abide With Me, sung by Emili Sandé, for the music.
Khan picked 52 dancers for the piece, which paid tribute to the victims of the 2005 London bombings. It became a source of controversy when NBC didn't air the segment in the US, stating that honouring terror victims in other countries wasn't relevant to the American audience. Khan went on record to say how disheartened he was by the omission. Since then, Khan's company has resumed touring the world.
The Olivier-award winning solo production, Desh, will go to several European destinations, including Rome, Luxembourg and Amsterdam, before returning to the UK's Sadler's Wells in October. Gnosis will tour India and Taiwan, while Vertical Road, an earlier production, is touring the US.
"Dance is becoming more important for audiences to experience healing and catharsis," says Khan. "How do you express a broken heart, for instance? When you sit at Sadler's or any other theatre and watch a live performance, it is a completely different experience than watching it on YouTube."
Akram Khan will perform today in New Delhi at the Kamani Auditorium. Visit www.theparksnewfestival.com