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Akram Khan: Digital has revolutionised dance, but we mustn’t abandon tradition

Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan in Until The Lions. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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As I come to the end of my career as an active dancer, it’s fascinating to look back at how the advent of digital technologies and methods has altered how I create, and what it means for the legacy of the work I make.

My practice, from choreography to performance, has evolved dramatically with the advent of digital cameras and phones.

Most significant has been the impact on the process of creating work. Where in the past an artist might document the creative process through stills photography and diaries, the almost infinite storage capabilities afforded by digital video and cloud storage mean a kinetic artist like me can look back at the creative process from beginning to middle to end.

The effect on the finished work can be profound; if I’m in the middle of a project and I look at the first trailer or first part of the process online, it provides a concrete reference point for the project as a whole – an anchor.

The ability to freeze a moment of creativity in time – say, through recording a video of early choreography sessions – allows me to return to those moments throughout the creative process, and to do so at a speed and with a degree of convenience that would have been unthinkable in my early career. It’s almost like a form of time travel. The digital records of the process enable me to reach back and interrogate, develop, add and subtract at all stages of creation.

On a more personal level, as I make the transition from performer to non-dancing artist, the digital aspect of my work has become sacred: the legacy it provides not only of my work but of myself.

Because my children are very small, they will never really see me dance on stage, but digital affords me a powerful means of bridging that divide. A work can now be captured in a rich, nuanced, multidimensional way that can be experienced by generations to come.

There is a corollary to this: I feel strongly that it’s important that the tradition of oral history of the arts is not lost, for it is through this that innovation and brilliance emerge.

I am trained in the classical Indian dance of Kathak, a tradition passed on through non-technological means, carried in the memory, the body and the mind. So each time we share it, it’s evolving. It’s like telling a story – no one ever tells it the same way twice. It changes each time you tell it, because you are human, because you are alive.

By contrast, digital preservation of work and its perfect, infinite reproducibility – freed of context – potentially creates a more sterile transmission mechanism for ideas and art.

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As things will exist, theoretically, in perpetuity as a result of their digitisation, one might argue that there is a new and renewed sense of artistic responsibility in considering the perspectives shown in the post-launch legacy phase of your work, and to ensure that its propagation and dissemination occurs in an analogue, as well as digital, manner.

Akram Khan has contributed to Self-Publishing and the Arts, published by the Space

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