When it comes to classical Indian dance, I would be the first to admit that I am a complete novice. Akram Khan’s Gnosis, performed at the Edinburgh International Festival on Tuesday, offered an exhilarating and enlightening introduction to this eastern dance style – and it was fantastic on its own merit, too!

<i>Gnosis</i> © Richard Haughton
© Richard Haughton
The performance started with two of Akram Khan’s earlier repertoire pieces: Polaroid Feet and Tarana. Choreographed in 2001, the dances are entrenched in the Kathak tradition – a style of northern Indian dance which focuses on storytelling through symbolic positions and hand gestures. While to a western audience the nuances of the religiously inspired themes are hard to grasp, the dance itself is absolutely fascinating. With snaking arms and sharp, rhythmic finishes, the music and the movement are even more intricately linked than in traditional European dance. The cadenza-like ending to Tarana, where Khan’s shimmering ankle bells (ghungru) and drumming feet moved with hummingbird-like ferocity, was breathtaking.

The improvised ‘jam session’ that followed, Unplugged, displayed perfectly Khan’s spectacular showmanship. He introduced in turn the six musicians onstage with him and explained the conversation-like relationship between music and dance in Kathak. The dancer and the instrumentalists watched each other closely during a demonstration ‘call and response’ between Khan’s feet and the percussionists. Khan would tap out a rhythm with the ghungru and one of the instrumentalists would mimic the pattern on mridanga, tabla or drum kit... A fun game to watch. Then a riveting footwork showcase, which built on layer upon layer before fading to nothing, left the audience spellbound. There was a brief moment, before we gained the composure to applaud as the performers bowed and left the stage.

<i>Gnosis</i> © Laurent Ziegler
© Laurent Ziegler

The performance resumed with Gnosis a dance choreographed by Khan in 2009, which he had been unable to perform to the best of his ability at the time due to injury. Gnosis was a forty minute long delight which built upon the two solo dances from the first Act. Based on a thread of narratives from the Hindu Mahabharata, Khan danced as Gandhari (the mortal incarnation of the Hindu goddess of intelligence) who blindfolds herself in order to better empathise with her husband's blindness (danced by female guest artist, Fang-Yi Sheu). The duo’s performance was mesmerising and I particularly enjoyed the section where Fang-Yi She walked as if blind while Khan twisted round her so that she repeatedly stepped on his stomach. This was a very powerful image for me, evoking Khan’s character’s desire to help her husband yet being unable to do so without exposing herself to suffer.

A description of the story in the programme was enough for me to get the gist of what was going on, although I was left with the impression that there were narrative references in the dance which would have made more sense had I been more familiar with the source material.

© Philip van Ootegem
© Philip van Ootegem
But this did not, in any way, take away from the performance and Khan’s frenzied shaking at the end of the number was effective even without any background knowledge of the story. 

It is always amazing to experience new forms of dance. Gnosis was a brilliant introduction to classical Indian Kathak brought to Edinburgh by eight immensely talented performers. I loved it!