The arts are often a way of celebrating diversity and Akram Khan Company is a dance company with diversity at its heart...
“We’re not trying to show you our difference, we’re trying to make a difference,” says Farooq Chaudhry, producer and co-founder of the award-winning Akram Khan Company. With international acclaim and an audience of millions during its segment of the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, AKC is one of the world’s foremost dance companies. Based in Britain, but working internationally, global thinking is part of the company’s DNA and diversity feeds its artistic ambitions.
Through its groundbreaking productions, AKC aims to journey across boundaries to unexpected destinations. By reaching out to artists and audiences around the world, the company creates “uncompromising artistic narratives” which draw on fundamental aspects of behaviour to find the common humanity in all of us. In doing this, AKC have also become cultural ambassadors for Britain and exporters of culture.
Being an exporter of culture can be quite demanding. “We didn’t set out to do that,” smiles Chaudhry. “It’s a big responsibility. Essentially we want to tell stories that excite and inspire us, and then try to share them with as many people as possible. Success for an arts company like ours is when we create something and people all around the world see and experience it, and say: ‘Wow, that’s my story too’.”
Formed in 2000, AKC came about when former professional dancer and arts manager Farooq Chaudhry met young dancer/choreographer Akram Khan and the two decided to create “thoughtful, provocative and ambitious dance productions for the international stage”.
Born in Pakistan, Chaudhry’s work as a dancer was recognised with an Asian Achievement Award in 1988. With an MA in arts management, he devised business models to support Khan’s creative vision. His work with Khan and other dance luminaries has brought him recognition as an arts influencer and he participates in cultural entrepreneurship programmes at the London Business School and Hong Kong University while promoting the UK as a vibrant nation that reaches out to the world.
Khan’s skills as a dancer, choreographer and storyteller are lauded around the world, thanks to productions such as Gnosis, Vertical Road and Xenos, a show which premiered in Athens and was commissioned as part of the First World War centenary UK arts programme. A winner of numerous awards, Khan has also worked closely with the English National Ballet, and collaborators have included ballerina Sylvie Guillem, director Danny Boyle and singer Kylie Minogue.
He draws on his background in Kathak, a form of Indian classical dancing, and modern technique, using the fusion of these disciplines as a platform for telling stories and exploring new concepts. “Working with all kinds of people from around the world means that my ideas are reflected back to me from a variety of perspectives and this inspires me to think about my art in different ways,” Khan says.
Multicultural and gender neutral, Akram Khan Company is always ready to embrace something – or someone - that is new, challenging or interesting. Even though dance companies are famously youth centric, AKC has employed dancers in their 60s.
“We’re trying to be less caught up in gender stereotypes, embrace flaws and the transient beauty of human beings,” says Chaudhry. Until the Lions (2016) was a vehicle to take female characters of the Mahabharata – one of the Sanskrit narratives of ancient India - and put them at the centre of the story.
Barriers to communication haven been used to drive creativity. When Khan devised his 2008 work Bahok, it was as a collaboration with the National Ballet of China, and brought dancers from South Africa, Spain, Korea, China and India together. Speaking an array of languages, most of them couldn’t understand each other. Khan built the production around their attempts to be understood, placing the dancers in a transit lounge where they interacted despite obstacles of language or culture. Bahok means carrier in Bengali, and the performers were carriers of their histories and memories of home.
The company retains a flexible attitude when it comes to new work. In 2008 the Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche wanted to perform with Khan, so she studied dance, he learnt some acting, and their show in-i was performed more than 100 times in eight countries.
As the company became more successful and performed in an ever increasing number of countries, AKC became recognised as cultural ambassadors by the British Council and in some political spheres. Chaudhry says being a cultural ambassador means giving people an artistic experience that represents a set of values from the nation which created the experience. He hopes audiences engage with an AKC performance, that it might inspire them or make them think differently about the way they live.
An AKC show also conveys ideas of importance about the UK. “As a British company, exporting our culture across the globe, we are representing a democratic way of life, creative diversity, creative values, generating content through innovative collaborations, and across different genres - all of that stuff Britain has become really good at,” says Chaudhry.
He makes it sound easy, but being a culture exporter has its challenges. “It takes courage to export culture, because even when you have a big reputation like our company, you still want people to be engaged and inspired by the work,” he says. “It takes a lot to take a performing arts show abroad: the work permits, the travel visas, the technical plans of working in a venue which is completely different to yours and has different lighting equipment, working with a different language. You have to accommodate all those things before you get to the point where you can offer an experience to someone in a different cultural audience.”
However the rewards are significant, facilitating dynamic interculturalism and interdisciplinary exchanges. “What excites us now is that we go abroad with our shows and it becomes a learning opportunity. That learning process keeps us thinking, innovating and imagining,” Chaudhry says.
“New talent is exciting for a company,” he adds. “We love finding new people – young old, it doesn’t matter.” He explains that AKC takes discoveries, nurturing, amplifying and enriching what makes them unique for wider audiences. “Any organisation, even of the non-artistic variety – will admit that talent from other countries invigorates a company,” says Chaudhry.
Creative solutions for the culture export business
Practical issues such as theatre equipment and salaries are needed to run an arts company, in addition to dealing with currency fluctuations, contracts, and laws in different countries. Chaudhry’s leadership, balancing artistic and financial matters, is central to AKC’s success in exporting culture. Figures show that between 2003 and 2015, 72 per cent of AKC’s income came from international touring. The rest was comprised of sponsorship, and subsidies of 12 per cent.
“International revenues have allowed us to flourish as a company, to give us financial confidence in our underpinning and allowed our business model to be really robust and resilient so we can be brave with our artistic ideas. That’s made a difference to our growth,” says Chaudhry.
In setting up AKC, Chaudhry resisted the urge to make the company a charity, like many arts organisations, as he didn’t want a business model that expended vast amounts of energy in justifying its own existence. He wanted a business model that encouraged the company’s ambitions to do bold work, so he created a structure that fostered enterprise. With a more profit-driven model, AKC had a lot more control. Later, he created a charity to support dancers, and another company to work with artists across the globe.
Chaudhry knows the importance of seizing opportunities. Working with Danny Boyle for the Olympics ceremony “was big – terrifying actually. We had one go to get that right and it was a huge amount of work”. However this effort paid off in terms of reaching new people. “It raised our global stock value and became part of our USP,” says Chaudhry.
He travels constantly, making up to 50 trips a year to meet with festival directors and a network of co-producers. Keeping relationships alive and developing new ones, he sells AKC shows in different markets.
Chaudhry is happy to see that representations of diversity are changing and evolving. “For so long we were a diverse society, but it was a matter of living side by side and respecting our differences. Now diversity means listening to another point of view and taking on board something that may make you think differently. So it’s gone to another level.”
He thinks diversity is more than bringing people together to operate politely in parallel. He sees true diversity as integration and interconnection that generates new ways of doing things.
“At our best we try to create a universal narrative, a work that anyone, anywhere can say: ‘Your story is my story’, and they can recognise universal elements of the human condition,” he says.
Chaudhry is adamant that much of human behaviour is innate to everyone. “I believe we are fundamentally the same across the globe - the need for connection, for symbolism and metaphor, to tap into who we are. Beneath the veneer of culture, we have a lot in common.”
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