Akram Khan: 'I wanted to portray Giselle as a strong leader, not a coy young woman'

As it is about to be screened in cinemas, the legendary British choreographer talks about his radical reworking of the ballet Giselle and his full-length dancing swansong

Akram Khan
Akram Khan
© Lisa Stonehouse

Akram Khan is one of Britain's foremost contemporary choreographers. Having been trained in the classical South Asian dance Kathak from the age of eight, he studied with Sri Pratap Pawar and became his disciple. After working with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's XGroup project he began to create solo works in the 1990s, before founding the Akram Khan Company. He has also collaborated with the likes of Juliette Binoche and Kylie Minogue (for whom he choreographed a part of the Showgirl concert).

His company performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and Khan was awarded an MBE for services to dance in 2005. He won an Olivier Award in 2012 for DESH and has since staged a remarkable and critically acclaimed version of the romantic ballet Giselle with English National Ballet, which helped to win ENB an Olivier Award in 2017. He also announced last year that he would be finishing dancing full-length works, with Xenos – soon to open at Sadler's Wells – being his last. Here he explains a little about both Giselle to be screened nationwide from 25 April – and Xenos.

You are a contemporary choreographer and you've changed Giselle a lot. Would you still call it a ballet?
I would consider it a ballet. There were three ways to approach it, I could have completely transformed it and put it into my world, which is the contemporary scene. But that way I felt I would lose the classical audience, although that was the easier option. The other option was to make it very classical, but that wasn't really an option because I wouldn't know how to do a classical repertoire.

So what was the third option?
It was to use the classical vocabulary and change it so it becomes contemporary and relevant to me. So I didn't lose the sense of the classical. It was the harder route. That was very exciting for me.

Did you change the premise of the story?
Giselle is still Giselle but the female character, the heroine, had to be a woman that I would recognise now. Not someone who is coy or shy. A lot of mythical characters are portrayed from a male point of view which I have a hard time dealing with because I grew up with a very feminist mother. So for me it was very important to reveal Giselle as a strong leader, not so far away from Tamara Rojo's role [who plays Giselle and is artistic director of ENB].

You have adapted it for the 21st century, what did you do with the narrative?
My version is based on immigrants. When we started creating Giselle there was such a huge mass migration and we looked at how they became displaced and vulnerable. So Giselle and her community are immigrants and the landowners are the rich. I was also fascinated by the factories, in China, but also Bangladesh because my parents are from there. We wanted to base the ballet on these migrants who are asked to work in tough conditions.

What did you discover about working on a ballet that you hadn't known before?
I knew I had to meet the dancers half way. I couldn't ask them to come to my world completely because what would be the point of having their own rich technique? But my own training was in Indian classical dance so working with a classical body was very interesting. It was interesting to see my work interpreted by them, it took my material somewhere else, if anything.

With the filming of Giselle, did you have to work hard on making it right for the screen?
I played a lightweight part in the filming, I left it to the director who checked with me if there was anything I liked or didn't. It's very different to filming a feature film, which is what I'm also doing at the moment – we're making Xenos into a film. With Giselle the location is the stage and you're capturing that but in a much more dynamic way because there are so many cameras.

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle
Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle
© Laurent Liotardo

Did the ENB dancers find it hard working with a contemporary choreographer?
We had worked on another project before, but I wanted them to completely immersive themselves in the narrative. What's really important to me is that everyone in the studio commits. They all become a principle [dancer] even though we do have principle dancers in the main roles. That can be challenging for a classical company because there is a hierarchy of positions. Usually, the dancers are also taught classical repertoire, but with this we were discovering it together.

And the music is very different too, I think?
Yes, one of the rules I gave Vincenzo Lamagna, the composition and sound designer, was that he had to use 80 per cent of the original music. It had to be there like a ghost. So he took the music and then transformed it. People who know Giselle will be able to recognise the original score [by Adolphe Adam].

Xenos will be the final time you dance a full-length piece, can you describe it for us?
It was comissioned by the NOW 14-18 World War One centenary celebrations. It was inspired by Prometheus, the Greek titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind. Prometheus also fell in love with mankind and believed in mankind. But his name means foresight so he knew that humans would destroy themselves, which is what we're doing, but he still had hope. And having hope for me was one of the most human qualities, apart from empathy and compassion. So that somehow got absorbed with the story of a dancer in India who gets pulled in to be a soldier. Suddenly he is 'Xenos' in the First World War, a foreigner in a foreign land. He's in battle and he doesn't know what he's fighting for.

Was stopping dancing full-length works a hard decision to make?
It was a very hard decision, because that's my voice. Dance is how I have been communicating since I was a child. Creating Giselle has really been a nice process of transition because I realise that I can still move through other people's bodies, and they are much younger and stronger dancers.

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle
English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle
© Laurent Liotardo

Why did you decide to stop?
I'm always in fear of injuries. I've never been injured that badly but I did have two major ones and that affected me psychologically. I have children too and I don't want to tour so much. I like to be in the studio, creating, rather than training. I still have to do Xenos for two years, so, it's a tour.

You were in Peter Brook's Mahabharata when you were 13, is that where you decided to focus on the stage?
I didn't actually dance in that show, I started dancing when I was three, and then training in Indian classical dance when I was eight.

Was that something your parents suggested you do?
There was no suggestion, I had to do it. But I didn't complain about it because I always got sweets or a McDonalds after every show. Eventually, I stopped wanting the rewards because working within that world was enough for me. I never took it really seriously until I came back from working with Peter Brook. There were some of the best actors in the world in that production, and of course one of the greatest directors. It was a nine-hour play, we were touring the world, I left at 13, and came back at 15, and was very different.