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Lori Ortiz
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Akram Khan Company - Zero Degrees

by Lori Ortiz
April 25, 2008
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
Akram Khan Company brought two New York premieres to City Center about being caught between cultures. It is the migratory life of today's dance artists, who by necessity must go where they can work. Khan has said his body is his home.

His 2008 "bahok" alternated nights with "Zero Degrees," a must-see 2005 collaboration created and performed by definitive choreographer/dancers Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Londoner Khan, born to Bangladeshi parents, and Flemish-Moroccan Cherkaoui's pleasuring style and virtuosity tempers their sociopolitical agenda. It may feel palliative, but never medicinal.

Was the timely "Zero Degrees" tweaked? Bill T. Jones updates his works to reflect current events. With simpler means, and more cogence, "Zero" asks the same questions that Jones does. What responsibility do we have for the ills of the world?

Jerome Bel's 2005 "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" is a similar collaboration with the Cambodian classical khon dancer. It's a demonstration, even if it moves us as art. But the larger scale "Zero Degrees" revels in the language of movement, its mystery preserved with its possibility for revelation.

The 75-minute work was created around Khan's true story about a train ride confounded with a fellow passenger's death and passport trouble. But its message about unity ripples outward as the piece progresses. The spiral encompasses not just his own journey, not just the dance artists' life, but all peoples'. It then narrows and distills, pointing at a specific location, Jerusalem.

"Zero" begins with he and Khan seated and doubled in a spoken monologue. They dialogue with movement, sometimes mirroring each other and more often weaving arms while facing each other. In solo, Cherkaoui tumbles, his chest or head the point of contact with the floor. His back is arched and his bellbottoms billow around his calf's overhead. Khan whirls fast or dances with curving kathak arms and articulate hands. The narrative proceeds like narrative in Eastern traditional forms. The two journey on an imaginary train and on foot, traversing the stage with a rhythm that suggests travel, and the music's mesmerizing beat supports the image.

Cherkaoui dances on the floor, exquisitely doublejointed, with his foot around his shoulder. Then he walks toward Khan and places his foot on Khans shoulder. They dance together with percussive heels and toes alternating, as in Kathak. Khan is trained in that North Indian classical dance form. Cherkaoui trained at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, and his acrobatic dancing reflects his experience in hip-hop and jazz companies. He is a sought after choreographer; his "Loin," performed at the Joyce last year, also features song, spoken word and skat. He dances in the eclectic Ghent company Les Ballets C. de la B.

In "Zero" the two drag around two stuffed life-sized men cast from Khan and Cherkaoui by British sculptor Antony Gormley. At first Cherkaoui mimics them acting like a rag doll. Then later Khan positions himself like one of the dummies who's sprawled on the floor.

"Zero Degrees" makes us think about the mechanics of movement, morality, and sociopolitics, all through the aegis of incredible, exquisite dance. It zeros in, as we relax in its gorgeous moves and moments of physical and verbal comedy. Finally, it is gravely serious. While Cherkaoui is dancing on his toes, Khan is struggling with the dead—the two life-size, corpse-like props. When Cherkaoui sits at the foot of the stage and sings Naomi Shemer's 1967 commissioned "Jerusalem of Gold." The point— all the talk and dancing about passports, cultural differences, the nomadic life, the reconciliation of opposites— is driven home. Kahn convulses and machine gun fire comes to mind, rocket fire, suicide bombers, lifeless bodies.

But how do we understand the Hebrew lyrics and Cherkaoui's performance of them? I don't believe I heard the words ani kinoor (I am your violin), part of the popular song as I know it, the violin a metaphorical instrument for praising Jerusalem. "Zero" is clearly critical as gently juxtaposed with the spoils of war.

Yet it ends with a mournful violin in Nitin Sawhney's score (played live behind the cyclorama by four musicians who are sometimes spotlighted and visible.) Khan dies repeatedly and Cherkaoui carries him off over his shoulder. It's quiet and dark. "Zero's" message of unity touches this youngish audience. We succumb to its power and stand pledging allegiance.

It's easy to see why it's been so well received. Let's not underestimate the power of dance, the potential impact of art, or the artist representing the survivalist in us all.
Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Photo © & courtesy of Tristam Kenton

Akram Khan

Akram Khan

Photo © & courtesy of Tristam Kenton

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