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Paul Ben-Itzak
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Theatre de la Ville - les Abbesses
Paris, OT (France)
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A star is born - Akram Khan… and company

by Paul Ben-Itzak
May 11, 2010
Theatre de la Ville - les Abbesses
31 rue des Abbesses
Paris, OT (France) 75018
01 42 74 22 77
"You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need."

— Rolling Stones
PARIS — About a year ago, Akram Khan, the London-based choreographer with a penchant for mixing up Kathak and modern dance — - actually more of an enterprise, with three companies touring his work — went to Sado Island in the north of Japan in search of a male taiko drummer to collaborate with for his latest piece, "Gnosis," which opened last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Abbesses in Monmartre as part of a world tour (except to the US, but we'll get to that). "I wanted a man," he recounted to last night's audience towards the end of part one, featuring Khan in interplay with a musical ensemble including two male singers (Faheem Mazhar and Sanju Sathai), a tabla (also Sathai), the string instrument the sarod (Soumik Datta), the Taiko drums (we'll get to her) and a cellist (Lucy Railton). "They kept telling me, 'No, you want this girl.'" They are Kodo, the renowned Japanese drumming group. The girl was Yoshie Sunahata, a.k.a. the latest performing arts triple threat and the greatest discovery I've seen in ten years.

Khan was funning with us by the moment he chose to impart this information. Apart from a mystical opening in which her silhouetted back, in a triangular top, is the first thing we see, and her building tenor taiko drums the first we hear, heralding Khan's entrance, Sunahata had not actually played anything in the first half. If anything, she seemed out of place in an ensemble that, apart from Railton's cello, focused on traditional Indian sounds. But this was before we got to the second half, comprised by the integral work "Gnosis." Sunahata opened here too, but this time she not only rarely got off the stage; by the time the 25-minute work was finished, she'd also revealed herself as a dancing and singing sensation, in addition to her drum training, for which she's trained ten years with Kodo.

Sunahata starts "Gnosis" by entering from upstage center between two rocky slabs, a pole in front of her. She lays it down then executes a martial arts riff — - Tai Chi-like squatting with the weight shifting from one leg to the other, the arms slashing the air. Khan eventually enters and shadows her. Then they face off, the pole being an instigator. I see you rolling your eyes — another choreographer (for "Gnosis," Khan working with Gauri Shama Tripathi) sucked up by props. But they use it sparingly. She pokes and prods him along the floor with it. He tries to wrest it from her, as it becomes clear this is not just a pole but her blind woman's walking stick. She gropes for it and for him whenever he manages to wangle it from her. There's also an eloquent moment in which he grabs her feet under her dress, one by one, to coax her along.

Eventually she leaves Khan to solo — or so I thought. Soon a woman's chant starts up. As there were no woman singers on stage, I assumed it was a tape — until Sunahata entered with a mike. The haunting, expressive voice was not that of an amateur…. Sunahata later told me she's been studying singing for just five years. She's been with Kodo for ten, as I noted above, and as for the dancing, it was when Khan noticed her movement as she played the drums (there's a whole art to the way Kodo members move when playing their drums) that he got the idea to partner with her. When she finally left, Khan went into his trademark head-shaking move, where the noggin moves back and forth so fast it becomes a blur.

For Khan himself, what impresses most are his swirling and his planes — created along the whole side of his body, or along the arms — and his ability to wend his arms at the same time he's moving across the stage. And then there's the fellowship between him and the other musicians — for Khan, with bells strapped around both legs above the ankle, is also one of them.

Later I asked the company's manager if the work would be touring to the US. (It will also tour to Sydney, Amsterdam, Taiwan, Salamanca in Spain, Rome, Amsterdam, and Montpellier soon.) She said there were no current plans. Then (it doesn't always happen like this) I spotted Joe Melillo, the executive producer of BAM. He'd also clearly been wowed by the show and particularly Sunahata. "So Joe," I asked. "Will we be seeing this at BAM?" He scowled. "We just had the company last fall!" This is where I prefer the European presenter mindset to that of the American. Here in Paris companies like Khan's might play every year — it's called nourishing the artist and developing a relationship with him or her. As well, I cannot understand how a producer for a theater in NY — obviously one of the biggest — can be so narrow-minded and, well, non-artistic in his thinking. The point isn't whether this company has played recently. The point is the work. Akram Khan's "Gnosis" is not just a tour de force, it is the next level, an analgem of performers who don't just think they can do everything — sing, dance, and play instruments — but can. It needs to be seen everywhere. You can see it at the Theatre de la Ville - Abbesses through Saturday, as part of this Spring's tribute to Indian dance, music, and puppet forms.

Yoshie Sunahata and Akram Khan rehearse Khan's "Gnosis"
Photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville

Photo © & courtesy of Laurent Ziegler

Akram Khan and musicians (including Yoshie Sunahata on taiko) performing Khan's "Gnosis"
Photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville

Photo © & courtesy of Laurent Ziegler

Akram Khan and musicians (including Yoshie Sunahata on taiko) performing Khan's "Gnosis"
Photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville

Photo © & courtesy of Laurent Ziegler

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