iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor), the Akram Khan Company's most recent work, explodes with fury and ornament as part of the British Dance Edition's 2014 performance schedule. Over­flowing the foyer of the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh, dance-­makers, practitioners and performers gather for Khan's exploration of Igor Stravinsky's seminal work The Rite of Spring.

Akram Khan Company's iTMOi © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company's iTMOi
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Commissioned for the centenary of Stravinsky's original 1913 composition, Khan invades well-­trotted territory by the likes of the legendary Nijinsky and the late great Pina Bausch. What erupts on stage is an intense battle of wills. Using Stavinsky's composition as a blueprint, Khan charges against our preconceived notions of what to expect from such a well-­known and passionate piece of dance. By interweaving his own roots of Kathak and contemporary dance with the symbolism of pagan folklore, Khan creates a bewitching dance-­theatre piece that has moments of real unnerving beauty and originality. Like The Rite of Spring, iTMOi, tells the story of celebration and sacrifice as a young Virgin is plucked from the village as the chosen one to dance to her death in a fierce sacrificial dance.

Even before the house lights dim, a faint smoke drifts into the theatre from the stage. There is a sense that we are being eased into the performance gently – of course this is not the case. As soon as the theatre darkens, the stage explodes in sound. Dressed in a black cassock, dancer TJ Lowe, becomes the possessed baptist minster, roaring in both gesture and voice. As the lights raise, a stage within the stage appears. Scenographer Matt Deely has designed a perfect square perimeter that rises and slants throughout the work, casting architectural shadows and wafts of grey smoke. Dancers weave in and out of each other, elbows point to the sky in some secret salute to the gods.

iTMOi © Jean-Louis Fernandez
iTMOi
© Jean-Louis Fernandez
The ritual begins. 

From upstage, a dancer enters in fantastical costume – her skin is painted entirely white, with one bare breast and an exquisite lattice-­worked head piece. The village of dancers surround this ivory tower, entranced into submission. Only one dancer challenges the ritual, thrusting himself into mocking shapes in order to throw the others off. It doesn't work – ­­in fact this is the first moment that the wind in iTMOi's sails begins to sag. The pace is picked up again though as the dancers unite in a percussive motif diagonally across the stage. The slapping of their feet and hands provide the rhythm of the climbing harmonic sounds while their playful gallops are reminiscent of a Gypsy folk dance. For a joyful moment all seems right with the world and Khan's vision eclipses his predecessors. A wonderful duet emerges between the Virgin and dancer Denis 'Koone' Kuhnert who fuses b­-boy prowess with tender fluidity as he attempts to woe the young Virgin. Kuhnert's structured velvet skirt becomes an integral part of his movement as he bounds effortlessly from barrel jump to poised headstand. 

iTMOi is an ambitious work, creating startling visuals with the support of Fabiana Picciolli's stunning lighting design, and Kimie Kakano's ornate costumes. The characters are all archetypal, tied inexplicably to the cyclical nature of birth and death. As the horned god is awakened and enters the fray of dancers, a hanging golden orb soon becomes a low­flying wrecking ball, cutting through the space. Dancers ricochet, barely missing collision, and the Virgin is thrust through a series of furious trials. Khan's company of dancers are physically striking, attacking the choreography with conviction and finesse, but only a few are able to sustain their characters throughout the shifts between movement and drama.

Akram Khan Company © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

It is the synergy between the primal and the spiritual that really galvanises Khan's fusion between dance styles, and creates many of iTMOi's most engaging moments, and yet it is hard not to drown in the piece's heavy symbolism that at times feels leaden and overly self-­conscious. The Rite of Spring is episodic in nature, and Khan keeps to Stranvisky's chaotic order, yet I cannot help but feel that everything has been devised parallel to, rather than in collaboration with, each other. The original score by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook, and Ben Frost is mostly successful, drawing out the ethereal mythology and sadness of the sacrificed Virgin as she finally has the stage to herself. Having been doused in white powder by the bare­-breasted ivory woman, the Virgin momentarily escapes her convulsions, extending out in a sculptural arabesque, arms lifted, wrists flexed and chest lifted to the sky. It feels like the end, but the saga continues.

Khan is known to push the borders between dance and theatre, and yet the disciplines in iTMOi do not fuse seamlessly. As Stravinsky discovered, The Rite of Spring could not be conceptualised, only experienced, and iTMOi in many ways feels like an epic-in-waiting, not quite reaching its asserted heights.

***11