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The power of presence

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Will Gompertz | 08:30 UK time, Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Akram Khan is not a big man. This incidental observation morphs into vivid consciousness when he prepares to dance at the beginning of Gnosis, his new show which opened at Sadler's Wells on Monday evening.

Akram

In front of an expectant full house, on a desolate stage with no music and just some bells on his legs to keep him company, he appears worryingly vulnerable and fragile. It's like watching a young, frail and frightened first-time comedian take an open-mic spot at a beered-up Edinburgh Fringe bear pit: you can't help but fear for his well-being.

But Akram Khan is no rookie. He is a well-respected, highly successful choreographer and dancer who has dazzled audiences across the globe with his movement and power. And so he did again on Monday with his mastery of the north Indian dance form of Kathak.

Midway through the performance, during an entertaining music-and-dance improv session, he made explicit his intention to provoke unease among his audience. "Fragility," he said, "is a good thing. It keeps you in the present." At first, I thought he was simply referring to himself as a lone dancer; I later realised the apophthegm was for us, the watching public.

Towards the end of the first half of the show, he introduces the musicians who accompany his dancing. The last to be announced is the percussionist Yoshie Sunahata. She comes from Japan, where Akram had discovered her at an open rehearsal. He was looking for a fierce man, not a delicate woman, but ended up choosing Yoshie because of "her inner power".

Actually I think there is some poetic license in his use of the word "discovered". As I understand it, he went to the Japanese island of Sado where the remarkable Kodo Drummers are based (Yoshie was a member) and spent time working with them. Hardly a Simon-Cowell-style open rehearsal, but that's by the by.

Akram Khan and Yoshie Sunahata

After the break, Akram is joined on stage by another dancer. They work beautifully together as they tell a very truncated version of the Mahabharata through dance. There is still percussion accompaniment, but Yoshie is no longer on the drums - she is the one dancing with Akram.

You need exceptional qualities to be able to drum to a high enough standard to become a Kodo member. Only a very remarkable individual could also dance at a sufficient level to warrant taking the stage with Akram Khan. Yoshie Sunahata has achieved both and more. She also sang beautifully. Inner power and some.

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