Accessibility is clearly not Akram Khan’s top priority. The name of this piece alone is a code that refuses to be cracked, a far from obvious acronym that brings a murky tide of mystery to Khan’s stabs at biographical representation. Those brave enough to venture beyond the smug title will not be rewarded with much more clarity. Commissioned to mark the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Khan’s piece – subtitled ‘in the mind of igor’ – attempts to penetrate and illuminate the imagination of this great composer, and reflect new insights into what is widely held to be his greatest work.
Fittingly, Khan mimics the elusive nature of his musical inspiration in form as much as content; as a result, in the midst of all of this cryptology, it soon becomes clear that Stravinsky’s mind isn’t an easy one to access. The composer’s genius is presented as one sculpted by religious dogma, moulded by a troubling fixation with sacrifice, and embellished with disjointed and faceless erotic fantasy.
The foundations of this evocative psychoanalytical profile are set by TJ Lowe, this company’s stand-out dancer. Lowe takes on the part of a devilish preacher – an agonised, screaming figure who, in violently crying out the names of biblical figures Abraham and Isaac, reminds us that belief can be built on fear as much as faith. Lowe moves how you’d think only the imaginary could. Stooping under the weight of his character’s divine knowledge, he drags his crippled frame across the stage. Yet, seconds later, with just as much conviction, he darts about, swinging his coat tails with the lightness of a phantasm. In bringing an impossible agility to a knotted and taut gait, Lowe’s movement and Khan’s choreography play out the true romantic image of the mad artist.
As brief snippets of Stravinsky nestle against the rich, modern composition of dream-team collaborators Jocelyn Pook, Nitin Sawhney and Ben Frost, iTMOi feasts on contradictions and clashes. Fabiana Piccioli’s intelligent lighting design artfully incorporates the extremes of shrill brightness and deep shadow, as scenographer Matt Deely’s angular designs toy with height and perspective. Interspersed within this sophistication, Khan’s choreography hints at the childish elements of Stravinsky’s innermost self, incorporating handstands, shadow puppetry and general clowning. When the harmonies subside, the dry, repetitive scratches of a record turning bring an urgent, transitory mood to the piece – certainly a provocative inclusion in a piece so centred around classical music.
Taken alone, the individual components of iTMOi’s design aren’t all that radical. A woman pivots in a hooped white dress below grilled, imprisoning lighting; at other points, bells wield their macabre chimes, and a pendulum rocks across the stage. This tried and tested language of fairy tale imagery is a shorthand for quirkiness but, as Khan’s twelve dancers reenact a tribute to one great composer, this lack of originality doesn’t seem like a flaw. Rather, when you treat each romantic costume and melodramatic peal as a stepping stone, Khan and his dazzling team of creatives lead us into a rich and absorbing world, evoking the theme of imagination without letting imagination tear away the potent familiarity of the sublime.
iTMOi is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 14 June. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website.