At a recent webinar, as part of the Indian Performing Arts Convention by Apsaras Arts, dancer Mavin Khoo narrated the story of how he, as a nine-year-old wearing a cute Mickey Mouse watch, attended a masterclass by guru Adyar K. Lakshman in Malaysia, and ended up becoming his student for life. “Lakshman Sir was making us do thattadavu in third speed and I just kept going… When I was finally done, I remember Sir joking about how everyone wears a watch to see when they can stop except for this child (me, that is) who wears a watch to see how long he can go on for.”
More than three decades after the Mickey Mouse watch story, the Malaysia-born Mavin is a Bharatanatyam and ballet exponent, choreographer, artiste-scholar, teacher, a Londoner, and a creative associate at the Akram Khan Company (AKC). Queer in his identity, labelled often a ‘guru’s boy’, not shy to speak about god, unafraid of emotional attachments, and eternal student in a life-long relationship with dance, Mavin admits that with age, he feels more like a 10-year-old. “I’d say that the one crucial quality, aside from a whole host of others that my gurus gave me — and so generously — is the excitement for dance.”
I met Mavin, who was in Chennai for two weeks during the December Season, at a coffee shop that was dressed in fairy lights and all things Christmas. Mavin had taken an autorickshaw from Narada Gana Sabha after watching a Bharatanatyam performance by Pritam Das. “He reminds me of myself at that age.”
The prefix and suffix of Mavin’s schedule, which segues seamlessly through the day among coaching, rehearsing, watching, and spending time with elders, is dance.
Bond with the city
“I feel like I’m a child of Madras,” says Mavin. “My bond with the city and to a particular kind of audience is one that has anchored me so much even through all the years that I’ve been in the West. And please bear in mind that in the West, I have fulfilled my experimental explorations — of identity, of gender… I’ve lived the threshold on many levels. Now in the last few years, after all these explorations, there’s a kind of revealing of a centre that is happening, and that centre, not surprisingly is Madras. This city allows me to genuinely refer to my history in order to feel a freedom for my future.”
Central to that commitment towards the future (of dance) is Mavin’s unwavering passion for dance, combined with a strong sense of responsibility. “Honestly, I’ve come to a place in relation to my dance where I’ve stopped dancing for myself. Of course, I love to dance but I’m in an interesting space where I’m constantly thinking about my responsibilities — not just to my own dance but to all those many voices that have come together, over the years, to construct this voice that I call mine. You see, the thing I really adore about Asia is the relationship young people have with their elders and when I come here, I now see myself as part of a mid-generation, the go-between the older generation and the young dancers with possibilities aplenty.”
As a perfect role-model for a generation that negotiates a fragile world with complex notions of infrastructure and professionalism, two words that Mavin considers inherently problematic — the arc of Mavin’s own journey in dance is truly a culmination of commitment to a singular idea and persisting with it, letting it unravel, slowly, deliberately, organically to reveal the possibilities. “I think today’s generation is a bit nervous about committing to the unknown,” says Mavin, and therefore, the responsibility to share dance — and generously — with the younger generation, is that much more.
Immersive for dancers
Two weeks before Mavin landed in Madras, he was with the Akram Khan Company, in Swamimalai, as part of a week-long immersive for dancers titled ‘Seeking Satori’. Over seven days, against the gorgeous setting of the InDeco Hotels at Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu, the core team of AKC allowed a small group of Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers foray into their world of dance, sharing generously their processes and possibilities in form, content, and technique, and allowing the dancers to re-look and re-invigorate their love for dance.
“I love the energy that comes with dancers becoming students again,” says Mavin. “It changes the way we look at the dance.” In 2012, he joined the Akram Khan Company and became a full-time principal coach in 2017 before becoming a creative associate a year later. With a huge responsibility and also wearing a host of other hats, Mavin acts as lead rehearsal director and stager for Akram Khan’s repertory.
“Akram and I met in London when I was 18 and he was 20. For many years, we knew what each of us was doing but in 2012, working up, close and personal with Akram changed everything for me. I fell in love with Akram’s work and his values,” Mavin says. “The best thing about being with Akram is that he feels I serve his work but I feel his space has allowed me to serve my art, my gurus and allowed me to maintain the values that I so believe in,” Mavin adds.
When we finished our coffee, and were ready to wrap the interview — not necessarily the conversations — the sun had set. You spoke about values, I ask. What would they be? “Obsession, madness, commitment, surrender, rigour, empathy…,” says Mavin, before hailing an autorickshaw to head back to Thiruvanmiyur for his rehearsals.
A week later, on the eve of Christmas, in a packed auditorium at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for Kalavaahini’s Dance for Dance festival, curated by Bhararanatyam exponent, Malavika Sarukkai, when the curtains went up and Mavin Khoo and musicians took the stage, we witnessed the coming together of these values that reside deeply, consciously and responsibly within Mavin, and letting them facilitate what seems like his core purpose — “to serve dance”.
The central piece of the performance was Mukhari. Mavin was accompanied by Carnatic musician Sushma Soma on the vocals — apparently he had asked Sushma what her favourite raga was and she said Mukhari. So, he decided to start the performance with a varnam in that raga and structured the performance around that idea.
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