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April 27, 2006

Where have you gone, Joe Adagio?

I left last night’s performance of Akram Khan’s Ma feeling disturbed and depressed. Not because of the work itself; Khan is an intelligent choreographer and has a particular gift for assembling a crackerjack team around him – the best musicians, quality dancers and even Hanif Kureishi (the author of My Beautiful Launderette) to contribute vignettes of pungent text.



At the end of the performance, there were people on their feet, screaming, especially the young woman behind me who was doing that in my ear. The hazard, I suppose, of remaining seated during the ovation.

I liked the performance. I did not love it. I do not share his aesthetic.

That’s why I went home depressed. Khan’s work, at least this work, looked a lot to me like William Forsythe’s. The vocabulary is not the same; Khan doesn’t use ballet. But the attack and the outlook was. If only it were not so relentlessly exciting. The dance vocabulary is all attack that swirls from the center like the flicking of a snake’s tongue. It modulates, but only from stillness to violence. The glossy look of the designs looks like some of Forsythe. The sets were economical, sleek and brilliant though I could have done without the Theater of Cruelty lighting trained directly on the audience. It’s very well done, but I’ve seen this before and for me it’s something that no longer bears repeated viewing.

It’s what the market demands. Adagio is being excised from dance vocabulary. There were slow segments in Ma, but they were tableaux, not dance sections, and there is a dance vocabulary particular to moving slowly, including partnering – something Khan uses only rudimentarily. Even when a choreographer like Forsythe shocks us with a rare adagio (Quintett from 1993 or Duet from 1996) what’s been combed out of dance more thoroughly than adagio vocabulary is lyricism. Even Christopher Wheeldon, whose early pieces were sweeter in nature, got the message and made his smoky pas de deux like Liturgy or the central movement in Shambards, where Miranda Weese had her neck metaphorically snapped by Jock Soto. His model isn’t Balanchine; it’s Peter Martins and Kenneth MacMillan – both of whom have done the same in their works, and also both of whose hearts are in their darkest works.

I don’t lay the blame for any of this on Khan. I’ve only seen the one work, and I use it because it’s indicative of the trends, rather than the cause. The intelligence with which Khan works makes me think that he has the imagination to see beyond the smoky, sleek and relentless. But I went home from Ma feeling like an old man at 42. But I asked this at the end of a long article on William Forsythe in Ballet Review in 2000 - "Is there no choreographer of our generation who believes in the redemptive possibilities of the form?" I've never looked for Hell in dance, but Illyria. Did it take that little time for the aesthetic I love to become irrelevant?

Posted by Leigh Witchel at April 27, 2006 9:47 PM

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Come try PA Ballet's triple bill in June. The (very) little that I've seen of Matthew Neenan (11:11) and Chris D'Amboise (Franklin Court) showed a more humanistic approach than Martins and Forsythe.

Posted by: GWTW at April 28, 2006 2:37 PM

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