Mavin Khoo, the dancer that challenges the notions of gender

Mavin Khoo is internationally recognised as a dance artist, teacher, choreographer and artist scholar. He creates new work that challenges notions of gender and discards accepted ideas of masculinity and femininity when he performs. There is no gender distinction in his performances.

Mavin, also, stands today as one of the leading international male solo Bharata Natyam performers dancing in India and throughout the world. His initial training was at the Temple of Fine Arts, Sutra Dance Theatre and Sri Wilayah Ballet School in Malaysia. He the pursued his training in Bharatanatyam intensively in India, in New York and his commissioned works include creations for the Venice Biennale and Canada Dance Festival to name a few. Khoo is considered one of the few Bharatanatyam male soloists to have carved a niche for himself as an international touring solo artist. His own company, mavinkhooDance, was founded in 2003.

Man to monk_ Mavin Khoo--5793© Dolly Brown.jpg
credits: Dolly Brown

You are an internationally recognised artist, teacher, choreographer and artist scholar. Which of the above best represents you? 

I am very much a dance artist – for me, dancing is essential to who I am as a person. It is absolutely my self-expression and feels beyond a profession to me. I find it interesting because the current industry climate places so much emphasis on the idea of ‘professionalism’ that I feel many dancers forget the idea of dance as a ‘calling’ that they were drawn to in the first place. I guess the beauty of being a mature artist is that one makes a full circle – I’ve gone through all those variant phases, and now find myself back to having a daily excitement and joy to explore as a dancer first and foremost.

I also really love coaching, and the act of transferring knowledge and helping another dance artist find nuances and texture to their work is absolutely a joy to me. My role has been made particularly special for me because of all the work that I do with Akram Khan – he has brought into a space where I am able to coach and therefore serve dance in the way I now know.

How does the upcoming performances [Man to Monk: Part 1, Man] explores the journey between emotion, social expectations and spiritual transcendence? What is the meaning this performance conveys?

The performance really explores several elements: from a dramaturgical perspective, it creates a structure that frames a journey reflected through my own personal space at present. I am on a path that is striving for a transcendental experience for both performers. In order to reach that kind of transcendence, once has to first acknowledge all the prerequisites that come with understanding one’s self as a Man first.

There is of course also the more obvious performative strands that challenge social expectations of dance. Firstly, as a 42 year old exploring a new path where I wish to publicly demonstrate a shift from young virtuoso dancer to mature artist. I am combining this transition with elements of a male pas de deux by dancing with a performer much younger than me. There is also the creation element of the piece – I wanted to work with artists that would ‘go there’ with me; artists who would not be limited by emotional boundaries, and who would embrace a more ‘method’ like approach to the process. All these elements combined are (for me) where the queer element become tangible with the ‘unconventional’ approach and non-conformist choices.

Man to monk_ Mavin Khoo-5281© Dolly Brown.jpg
credits: Dolly Brown

What makes this performance so different and special?

I guess what makes the piece special is the honesty: we have really worked hard to find between us a non-filtered transparency about who we are that has become the essence of the work. Interestingly, it is this honesty that I hope will allow for audiences to not only observe the journey of the artists on stage, but actually feel that the emotional journey of the work is familiar to their own personal stories. In a sense, we all share those challenges, struggles, joys and thrills of love.

How does the Hindu culture and the Indian elements influence the performance?

I felt very strongly that I wanted these elements to have a depth in the work beyond simplified cultural codes of steps and movements that audiences would identify with as being ’Indian’ or ‘Hindu’. My body naturally embodies my roots: it defines how I think, feel, love and move. The work therefore strongly has these elements from an embodied state as opposed to a kind of fusion element.

Specifically, the theme of the whole four year project ‘Man to Monk’ is drawn from a cultural philosophy that I grew up with and that I practise as an Indian Classical dancer. Indian literature is rich with love poems depicting a journey whereby one discovers God through the act of love, which means one must understand physical desires. Part 1, Man is framed by this.

Man to monk_ Mavin Khoo-5081© Dolly Brown.jpg
credits: Dolly Brown

What was the most enjoyable part about this performance and what were the challenges you faced?

Currently, we are still in the creation process, and the enjoyment to date has been really in the exploration, which is the beauty of being an artist. The time in the studio should be the most sacred space because of the purity of search. I was brought up with this philosophy and it is one that I believe in with a single-minded focus. The find that the challenge lies in the search. I personally have to deal with all my demons, including a sense of insecurity – I am terribly hard on myself and this can take a toll on me.

How would you describe your dancing performance?

My performance has definitely shifted as I have got older. I would say that today, I approach my performances with a responsibility, as it’s no longer about me, as it used to be even 10 years ago. Now it’s a shared experience, and the audience is now part of this journey. They are not there for me to show off to but rather to experience something, and I take this very seriously.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud that I am still dancing and that I have stayed around purely by hard work. My world has always been in the studio and many times, there was pressure for me to be more ‘industry’ orientated and more political. I have somehow resisted or managed to walk away from the distractions.

Man to monk_ Mavin Khoo 5219© Dolly Brown
credits: Dolly Brown

Are you satisfied with your career and the international success you have met?

I don’t think I am ever satisfied, but this is not based on career. For me, there is much that I need to explore: my body has changed now in I’m in my 40s, but this has not meant that an end but rather, a beginning to a new search…

How did you decide to found your own company?

It really is practicality! I have no aspirations as a choreographer, but as a dancer I am very blessed that I am in a position where I receive support to invite choreographers to make work on me.

What are your future plans?

I am very excited because I have a lot of amazing projects for the next few years…not in a position to reveal all as yet though.

Man to monk_ Mavin Khoo-5623© Dolly Brown.jpg
credits: Dolly Brown

Receiving its World Premiere at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio on Thursday 29 and Friday 30 NovemberMan to Monk: Part 1, Man is Mavin Khoo’s latest bold piece, choreographed by Carlos Pons Guerra and charting the journey between base human emotion, societal expectations and spiritual transcendence.

Man to Monk is a four year project tracing the performative shift of dance artist Mavin Khoo. Partnered with a guest dancer for two new works created by commissioned choreographers, Khoo intends the pieces to challenge Western and Eastern ideas about methods of choreographic creation through a ‘lived experience’ creative process.

Victor Callens joins Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance artist Khoo for a male duet choreographed by Guerra, independent choreographer and Artistic Director of DeNada Dance Theatre. Depicting the trials and tribulations experienced with raw lust, possession and rejection, Man to Monk: Part 1, Man is a performative shift for Khoo as he seeks to deconstruct and subvert the classical pas de deux.

The piece stems from the Hindu and Sufi concept that desire and lust are intrinsic elements of human nature to be embraced and understood rather than denied. Exploring this notion through a sensual and murderous encounter between man and god, Man to Monk: Part 1, Man pits contrasts of culture, spirituality and emotion against one another.

For more information about Mavin Khoo: https://www.instagram.com/mavin_khoo

For more information about the  Man to Monk: Part 1, Man in London visit: www.sadlerswells.com

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