Joan Acocella’s latest New Yorker column on British choreographer-of-the-moment Akram Khan is one of her best pieces of work, in my opinion. After grappling with the musical complexity and historical intricacies of kathak myself for the past month, I’m dazzled by how simply but masterfully she breaks the form down for a general audience. Speaking of 68-year-old kathak master Birju Maharaj, she writes:

” He showed us how to lay a three-count foot-stamping phrase over a four-count musical phrase, and how to fit fives into sixteens. Saswati Sen did a dance to a count of nine and a half, a feat few people would have dreamed of. She accomplished it by taking some of the beats at double speed, and that is something else about kathak: how fast it gets, with no sacrifice of clarity. The dancer may be spinning like a rotary blade, but, from second to second, the head and arms are making exactly this shape, then exactly that. You can?t believe it?that so many different things are coming out of one source. And that?s not to speak of the mime dances, usually based on Hindu mythology, that are done in alternation with the rhythm studies. In these routines, the kathak performer often plays several characters In a tale from the Ramayana, Sen was now virtuous wife, now the god who seduced her, now the enraged husband, and also the river flowing by. Kathak is probably at least eight hundred years old, and in that time it has developed extraordinary subtlety.

Occasionally, for this reason, it is confounding. ”

She goes on to contend that Khan is overwhelmingly popular because, in combining “ethnic” dance with modern, he gives audiences something now rare in modern dance: a driving beat. I could have used a few examples of how modern dance purportedly eschewed musicality long prior to the Judson Church rebels (she’s talking about Cunningham, I suppose, though I’d like to know how far she thinks the rift with musicality reaches back), but I’m intrigued by the assertion. Definitely read Acocella’s full column, here.

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