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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Akram Khan's Stolen Memories

The following is an essay from 2011 that was included in BAM: The Complete Works, an overview of BAM's history. Akram Khan is a dancer and choreographer who returns to BAM March 2—5 with Torobaka, a collaboration with flamenco dancer Israel Galván.

BAM Majestic/Harvey Theater, 2003. Photo: Ned Witrogen
By Akram Khan

Winter, 27 years ago, I entered through the front door of the Majestic Theater—renamed the Harvey in 1999 in honor of Harvey Lichtenstein—then a young actor in Peter Brook’s production of  The Mahabharata. I was 14 years old and immediately quite disorientated by the unfinished demeanor of the building. Of course, my naiveté lead me to believe that maybe the builders, decorators, and electricians had not finished refurbishing the interior and exterior for our big opening night. But then I asked one of the actors, who impatiently told me: “This is it.” From then on, I decided to make the place my friend. If I was going to spend three months here, then I would make it my home. So all throughout the rehearsal period, I started to explore every corner, passageway, closet, and even the overhead walkways, which had access to the lighting rig high above the stage. I probably knew the layout better than the caretakers. And for the next few months, this place became my imagined, magical world.

Akram Khan (featured) in The Mahabharata,
Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière, 1987. Photo: Gilles Abegg
However, I would like to confess now that during my stay at BAM, at the end of one particular show, when the audience had left and the stage crew was preparing to leave, and the actors were still in the dressing rooms taking off their costumes and makeup, I took it upon myself to chip away a bit of the infamous stone wall that created the backdrop of the show using one of the props from the production, and kept it for personal memory. It was a terrible thing to do, I know, but at the time, I wanted to hold on to some essence of my magical time at the Harvey. I knew I might never come back there, in the same way, ever again.

Juliette Binoche and Akram Khan
in In-I (Next Wave Festival 2009)
Autumn, 22 years later, I entered through the front door of the Harvey, this time as a choreographer/dancer of the Akram Khan Company. I was now 34 years of age, and immediately quite disorientated by the still unfinished demeanor of the building. What struck me was that the theater I remembered as a child had been somehow preserved or frozen in time. Some people say that theater work has the ability to transport you to the past or to the future, well, it was no work of theater, but the theater itself, that instantly transformed me back into the child I was two decades before. And as I was now given a tour around the theater, my right hand was in my jacket pocket, stroking the very piece of evidence that I stole as a memory. And I was smiling—not sure why, but I knew I had to return the small part of the theater I had sliced off 22 years before. I had to empty the burden I had carried with me for so many years. It is now a great relief to say that I returned the chipped stone to its origin and left it somewhere in the corner of the stage, close to the infamous wall I had illegally tortured.

Writing this now, I realize that the reason I decided to return the chipped stone was because as a child I thought the memory was hidden within the object, but now I realize that the memory was actually stored somewhere in my body. I didn’t need another object to hold it for me. I didn’t realize or trust that knowledge as a child. But this understanding that my body is the closest object I could possess, which would store all my secret adventures, scars, hopes, and desires, was one of the most important lessons in my career. How blessed we are to be given a body that witnesses and absorbs all our secrets from the moment we are born.

Akram Khan returns to BAM March 2—5 with Torobaka, a collaboration with flamenco dancer Israel Galván.

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