Akram Khan is a potent storyteller, and he demonstrates it once more in his newest commission for Sadler’s Wells, In the Mind of Igor (iTMOi). The second work in A String of Rites, Sadler’s series celebrating the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with iTMOi Khan chooses an indirect approach to the masterpiece, shedding light on the thoughts and feelings behind it. Focusing on the figure of the creator, Stravinsky, rather than on his work, Khan presents a haunting inquiry on human creativity, exposing the darkest secrets of a genius’ mind. But let us follow Khan’s voice narrating the story.

iTMOi © Richard Haughton
iTMOi
© Richard Haughton

The house lights are still on as a roar is heard. A sudden blackout transports us in a surreal space with a bell tolling in the distance. In a dimly lit square a man growls, swiftly moving erratically in the smoke. Reniniscent of Morpheus in The Matrix in his long black coat, he seems possessed, his voice oddly contrasting his slapstick movements of squirrel-like quality. Even if only sketched, this character is evil. The scene opens up to a group with ambiguous, multicoloured costumes moving in the same swift way. Like stranded characters from different fairy tales, they wait for someone to rearrange their action, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921).

A “Queen” in white crinoline and an enormous white hat enters, suddenly capturing everyone’s attention. A “Rebel” does not comply, inviting the others to resist and lifting a girl in white, only to be put back in place. As a puppetmaster, the Queen directs the movements of her court. The girl in white is chosen and the Queen powders her head white. To save her, the Rebel rubs himself with the powder to take her place. The Chosen One will not allow it, holding him still on the floor by the head. The Court accepts the decision and the Jester performs fluid acrobatic tricks. The ritual takes place: the Queen stands surrounded by a sea of moving ropes with her pet, a faun-like figure with long devilish horns, and gives birth to the Rebel tighten up in the ropes. She offers her hat to the Chosen One, who wears it, disappearing with the faun-dog into the distance. Finally, a woman and a man fight and make love as an enormous golden pendulum moves back and forth, marking the time.

Breathing out after this visionary tale, one is left wondering: is it a story Khan is telling us? No, not really, but rather fragments of feelings evoked through movement, music and singing. The theatre seems to tremble as the music and the basses are “physically” loud, enhancing the bodily involvement in the piece. An extraordinary league of composers assisted Khan’s creative process: Nitin Sawhney, who also collaborated with Khan for Confluence (2010); Jocelyn Pook, best know for her music in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999); and Ben Frost, who also wrote the score for Wayne MacGregor’s FAR (2010). Repetitive singing, noises, folk-songs and the reworking of church music all created the extremely varied background for the piece’s action. The most interesting moment is when these sounds overlap, as the dancers move following a ritualistic singing, and a sweet female voice interprets a folk song, creating an odd juxtaposition.

Khan’s surreal composition is open: it lends itself to being explained and it does not. It is ambiguous, leaving the decision to the audience. There are enough characters to invite interpretation: a powerful female figure and a group of people, and less straightforward figures like the Jester in his large black skirt with red inside. With his acrobatic sequences, his legs and torso become liquid, almost non-existent under the skirt. Or the Faun, with long horns and a long-limbed, gleaming, statuesque Dalì-like body, who wears a tiny costume taken from Martha Graham’s Minotaur. And a faint storyline: this is not a rite of passage but the passage of powers, matriarchal powers. The sacrifice, if there is one, is only metaphorical: she renounces to her individuality to become a public figure. She is the new queen. But then again, she can do as she please as she is the only one in charge. None of which, connects to the mysterious title.

Khan sets all of Stravinsky’s early compositions for the Ballets Russes loose: Petrushka’s puppets, The Rite of Spring’s peasants and The Firebird’s golden ball, constructing magnificently ambivalent characters – the Queen is at once The Wizard of Oz’s Glinda and Narnia’s witch. Different from all these tales, it is iTMOi’s ritual earthiness that speaks to our senses. We drink the images and hold our breath as the new queen and her dog slowly disappear and the couple performs an oxymoronic love-hate duet. Khan’s vivid images and the stunning musical collaborations make iTMOi the piece not to miss this season.