Producer/Producer-Manager Farooq Chaudhry and dancer Akram Khan have been the golden ticket of the contemporary dance world. Their recent work ‘In-I’ has knocked off some of the lustre. But then Chaudhry is no stranger to picking himself up to dust off and dream again.
Farooq Chaudhry rubbishes the idea that art and affluence cannot coexist. “I’m not from a white middle-class background. I’m not inhibited by a need for altruistic values to balance the fact that my life has been favourable to me,” he says. “I want to challenge people and take them somewhere new. But I also want to make money, improve my life and feed my family as well. I think that’s a very normal thing to ask.”
Appropriately, we’re sitting inside his refurbished marble-tiled dining room in Crouch End. It has the minimalism of a modern art gallery and the spotless hygiene of a furniture showroom. As well as conveying a clear spatial and aesthetic awareness, it has the look of an owner that has done well from his work.
Chaudhry is now one of the UK’s leading dance producers and a driving force behind the meteoric rise of Akram Khan. The pair met over eight years ago and have used their respective talents to devastating effect: Khan, a kathak-trained dancer with a yearning to stretch the form into new contemporary spaces. Chaudhry, a contemporary-trained dancer with an instinctive and shrewd understanding of how dance can be both innovative and accessible. Under Chaudhry’s watch, Khan has partnered with some extraordinary artists and quickly become a darling not only of south Asian dance but of the British contemporary arts establishment and audiences. A series of high profile collaborations have followed close on each other’s heels: ‘Zero Degrees’, his 2005 duet with Flemish-Morrocan dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui featured music by Nitin Sawhney and body casts by sculptor Anthony Gormley; ‘Sacred Monsters’ in 2006 starred French ballerina Sylvie Guillem and the third and most spectacular collaboration was Khan’s billing with French Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche in ‘In-I’.
But was this a step too far? The show, which opened in London last October, sees Khan and Binoche address the notion of love through a 75-minute exponent of music, narrative and dance. Yet in stark contrast to previous work, it has been coldly received by critics. Some even went so far as to call it: “sixth-form drama class stuff.” The work has been essentially attacked on two fronts: firstly why a world-class actress and acclaimed dancer decided to venture unconvincingly into each other’s spaces. Secondly, why such a well-trodden theme as love was chosen to showcase the experiment.
But Chaudhry defends the work. “Love is always going to be a risky subject, because everyone has their own personal experiences and cultural references that define it,” he says. “But I wanted this to become an intriguing, deep, profound and sensitive portrayal of the notion of love between men and women. On the whole contemporary dance doesn’t do that, whereas ballets like Swan Lake or Giselle do it all the time.”
Preferring to find solutions rather than dwell on the reviews, he quickly points to the different approaches that the artists have brought to the work. “Juliette felt that as long as it was close to her own personal experiences, she would convey what love means to people, whereas Akram felt that as long it was universalised that would be enough. But the truth is that neither vision was in the right place. It needs someone to sit between a universalised and personalised message so that the substance feels drawn from within as well as be externally meaningful.” With a world tour already under way, changes are being made on the fly. “We’ve been doing a lot in the last few weeks to bring those elements a lot closer together.”
This is Chaudhry’s mindset – to find solutions and keep chugging on rather than be struck down at the first sign of hardship. Refusing to get bogged down in the reviews, he insists after being initially hurt, he’s quickly taken lessons form the experience. “There is an element in English society that when you become too successful, they want to knock the legs from underneath you and put you in your place. But its like that Rudyard Kipling said: ‘success and failure are two impostors’. You have to keep on doing what you believe in.”
And it is that belief that has followed Chaudhry throughout his life. Born in Pakistan and first arriving with his family to West Kensington in the 1960s, he concedes to believing that the ‘streets were paved with gold and lined with hopes and aspirations’ only to find it was in fact the opposite.
Racism at that time was rife. “My dad was a PhD maths professor and could barely get a job as a security guard. My mum had come from an affluent family in Lahore and ended up having to do numerous nightshifts in dead-end jobs. There was no respect for Asians, and the impact of that was horrendous.” When his sister eventually returned to Pakistan and his parents ended up divorced, Chaudhry describes becoming “disenfranchised and cut-off from family culture and self”. He soon fell into local gangs, where he was even caught stealing cars and burgling houses.
Yet even through the darkest of times, the need to survive and protect himself clearly cultivated an entrepreneurial instinct which manifested itself even in stealing items and selling them on to classmates. Chaudhry describes himself as always having had an element of the ‘shrewd opportunistic schemer’ inside him. The turning point came after attending Peper Harrow, a therapy school for troubled children, when he tapped into his innate creative energy eventually winning a place at Sussex University.
But it is the natural schemer inside him driven by his desires that he attributes to many of his bolder decisions. They include leaving Sussex University after one dance lesson to pursue the form full-time, armed only with the knowledge that dance was a way of ‘getting closer to myself.’ The need for re-invention culminated in him leaving London’s dance scene shortly afterwards and venturing to Europe eventually working under Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, then returning to the UK, setting up as a producer and administrator and later meeting Khan and selling his flat to fund their first joint project. “If you strip away the sadness and isolation of my early life, that ability to create opportunities against difficult odds is a skill that I’ve acquired.”
The funding structures that Chaudhry and Khan have compiled too are an embodiment of that. Rather than constantly going cap-in-hand to a funding body, he manages two separate companies: Akram Khan Company, which produces experimental work and invites public funding (“It’s well protected and continues the spirit of international ensemble work”). Khan Chaudhry Productions, the firm behind In-I meanwhile is entirely privately-funded. “There is a high-level of risk. If Juliette got injured for example, we could both lose our houses,” he says nonchalantly. “But the blend of high-risk and low-risk projects in terms of the business framework is important. It keeps you out of your immediate comfort zone, that is good for ambition.”
Chaudhry is excited about what the future holds. He and Khan are currently plotting a “Middle East-related project” and looking at performing opportunities ahead of London’s 2012 Olympics.
For now, he’s fixed firmly in the moment. Chaudhry is preparing to fly to Rome to meet Khan and Binoche on the latest leg of In-I, where he expects to mediate between Khan and Binoche as they touch-up the last pieces of the performance. “It’s been an amazing week,” he says, referring to Lewis Hamilton winning the Grand Prix and Barack Obama’s journey ever closer to The White House. “When you talk about people that can come out of relative obscurity and build themselves into figures of respect and win plaudits for their achievements, that really inspires me.” Hearing his story, it’s easy to see why.