“Music and dance is very important to a nation’s identity. More so than books,” insists the acclaimed British choreographer and dancer Akram Khan, MBE, whose career has encompassed the formation of his eponymous company, being hired as choreographer in residence at the Southbank Centre in London and memorably performing with his troupe at the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony while Emeli Sandé sang Abide with Me.
“Books are information,” he adds, “but it is the body that contains experience. Honestly, I think dance is, at least, equally as important as literature.” It’s a sentiment that explains why Khan wanted to work on Desert Dancer, a film that tells the true story of Afshin Ghaffarian. Born in 1986 in Iran, where the hardline government has outlawed dance and performers are persecuted, Ghaffarian pursued his dream by learning to dance from online videos of Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Jackson.
While studying theatre at the University of Tehran, Ghaffarian formed an underground dance company who rehearsed in fear and dared to put on a performance in the desert on the city’s fringes. After being beaten and targeted by government forces, he fled the country and defected, claiming asylum in France, where he is now studying political science at the Sorbonne and running Reformances, his dance company.
The film stars Reece Ritchie (The Lovely Bones) as Afshin and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as his muse Elaheh, and centres around lengthy episodes of impassioned and arresting dance that convey the brutality of its repression as a form of artistic expression. “Richard Raymond, the director, called me and explained the story to me,” says Khan, “and how dance simply had to be at the heart of the film. Sometimes directors say this, but in many cases it actually isn’t the essence. This time I realised, he meant it. It was a beautiful journey for me to explore the narrative with the dancers, and put dance and the body at the centre of the work.”
“Freida was so passionate, she gave everything, and she achieved beautiful things… and of course, Reece as well.” Intriguingly, Khan chose not to meet Ghaffarian, the inspiration for the story, while he was creating the movie (in cinemas from Friday 22 April). “I didn’t want to,” he explains. “Like all stories, this film had to transform itself into something beyond his life story. I used it as an inspiration to provoke the choreography, and create my own interpretation of it.”
Khan, 41, was born and bred in Wimbledon, south London, where his Bangladeshi-born parents didn’t encourage his career in dancing. In Bangladesh, books, study and formal learning, not dance, are the way to get on. Particularly for boys, explains Khan.
“The community in which I was brought up was driven by the desire for its children to be highly educated. Dance was simply not part of it, and for me that was tough. I was not a great speaker, and it made me shy. Language was not my strength, so I felt intimidated by my upbringing, really.”
Like Ghaffarian, however, Khan wasn’t intimidated enough to give up on his dream. Having started training in the classical South Asian dance form of Kathak aged seven, he had an astonishing springboard, being selected by the world famous director Peter Brook to dance in his epic production of the Mahabharata when he was just 13. The production toured the world and was filmed for television.
Khan then went on to study Contemporary Dance at De Montford University and set up his own company in 2000, at just 26 years old. “When I managed to transform the opinions of my community, they started to respect me and realise the power of the body. They could see it was equally as powerful as literature and traditional education, if not more so.”
Indeed, Khan wants to highlight dance as the key to expressing national identity and he is grateful to the British culture that allowed him to express himself through movement. “I have a voice in the world of art and, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if I had grown up in Bangladesh. I am very proud to be British for that reason, society here is so multicultural.”
“For me, dance has become an art form to tell mine and other people’s stories. It is not just entertainment. It’s a platform to tell political stories, stories about identity.” A sentiment that makes his involvement and choreography in Desert Dancer – a powerful story in a world where the very act of dancing is a political challenge – wholly understandable.
Desert Dancer is in cinemas now