mavin khoo


We speak frankly with Mavin Khoo and choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra about the process of getting ‘emotionally naked’ to create their latest work, Man to Monk, for the Sadler’s Wells stage.

“There is such a joy to being a vessel,” says Mavin Khoo, who has established a career of nearly 20 years as a dancer and is speaking to us from the back room of a rehearsal studio.

“One of the challenges I have now is finding people to make work on me who are interested to really go deep in terms of who I am, as opposed to coming into the studio and my body becoming a kind of superficial instrument.”

This hunger for a new kind of creative process is what led him to work with choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra on an intense period of research where they would literally eat, sleep and rehearse together. Mavin would become Carlos’s muse.

“I spent a lot of time with Mavin. I felt like a journalist in a way,” says Carlos. “Christopher Isherwood famously writes in his novel Goodbye to Berlin ‘I am a camera.’ I really feel like I was a camera that was just following Mavin and it was just so interesting to immerse myself into one person and the essence of that person.”

After two years in creation, their two-part dance work titled Man to Monk emerged: an exploration of raw human desire and an intimate portrait of sexuality, masculinity and relationships, where Mavin partners with Victor Callens in a male duet.

“I can play the very good student or the good dancer, who just listens in the studio,” says Mavin, “but it was important for me that he really understood all the negative things about me. My temperament, my moods, how I sleep at night, my desires. If someone was going to make a work on me about love, they had to really understand this deeply. I’m sure it must have been quite overwhelming and quite intense at times for Carlos.”

“Mavin would cook for us every night. There was a very kind of motherly, caring aspect to him I got to experience because you’re out of the studio. We interviewed each other several nights. I got to pray with Mavin so I got to experience his spiritual life as well. But then we discovered we’ve got lots of things in common. We really love The Golden Girls! It had some intensity at times because you’re negotiating personal space. But, wow, it definitely makes for a very kind of profound work. It makes the research so much more complete.”

Carlos and Mavin, on the surface, might not seem like your most obvious pairing – aside from their mutual appreciation of The Golden Girls. Mavin is a classically trained bharatanatyam dancer, from Malaysian heritage and practising Hindu. Carlos has become known for his gender-bending contemporary dance work questioning queer identity and comes from a Spanish Catholic family.

So, did their differing cultural backgrounds and dance styles force them outside of their comfort zone?

“I think the cultural perspectives of our backgrounds didn’t really have as much difference as we thought it would. There was quite a lot of similarity. It was more the perception and construction of queerness that had more challenges,” Mavin answers.

“Mavin has such a rich physical heritage inside him. There is so much in him that can come out, rather than a challenge I think that was a blessing. It gave us so many options,” adds Carlos.

Mavin’s innate qualities have become part of the work, whether he wanted them to or not, as he explained…

“I feel more that my whole spine is so Asian!” laughs Mavin. “I think there’s something about that certainty that is much more embodied as opposed to constructed. The work is a lot about this element of construction, whether it’s queerness or it’s cultural. There is an interesting subtext that is challenging our perception of what construction is as opposed to embodiment.”

“This isn’t a fusion between bharatanatyam and contemporary dance. What’s really great about this work is Mavin’s ‘orientalisation’. Everything that’s Asian in him is in the work, in the vocabulary, just because he’s there. That relationship between him and Victor, who is so clearly Caucasian, is really strong because of its honesty and not necessarily because of the language that we’re using.”

Carlos was speaking to us from Tennessee where he is currently crafting a work for Nashville Ballet. Here the tradition is still geared towards the male and female pas de deux, he told us. So how conscious was the decision to subvert what we’re used to seeing in a classical context, by partnering two men in Man to Monk?

“It sheds light on one gender. But although this is very clearly a relationship between two men or one man and god, there is a universality in it that I feel like any kind of gender denomination can relate to.”

Man to Monk comes to the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on 29 & 30 Nov. Tickets are priced at £17. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

Dancer and choreographer Mavin Khoo discusses Darbar Festival

For the first time ever this November, Sadler’s Wells will be hosting Darbar Festival, a celebration of Indian classical dance. Building on its success since launching over ten years ago, Darbar and Sadler’s Wells have joined forces to offer an unprecedented classical dance programme specifically curated by Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Akram Khan. One of the artists performing is Mavin Khoo, an internationally renowned Bharatanatyam dancer, who is also Artistic Director of ŻfinMalta Dance Ensemble and rehearsal director for the Akram Khan company. In Indian Adventures of Sitar and Dance, he will present a newly devised solo as part of an ongoing collaboration with vocalist OS Arun. We spoke to him about his relationship with the Bharatanatyam dance form and what he is particularly looking forward to seeing at the festival.

Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your solo piece at Darbar Festival?

My solo is essentially a one act journey that is developed out of 2 lines from a traditional music composition called the Varnam. Essentially by using the lines that say…’My lord, it is only you that I have total belief and conviction in, please do not be indifferent to me now’, a whole world is developed whereby the heroine experiences romantic love and longing, to sensuous erotic consummation, to loss and despair, death and finally spiritual transcendence. All in 45 minutes! The things that audiences can look for is my exploration into dancing from a female protagonist’s voice (something that has been an area of development since I made my solo debut at the age of 16). The second thing is the collaborative relationship with OS Arun, the ‘live’ sense which comes from a strong improvisational framework within the work. The marriage of dance that is stimulated by musical ‘in the moment’ choices and vice versa.

This piece is part of an ongoing collaboration between vocalist OS Arun and yourself – what has it been like to work together?

The relationship over the last 10 years has been deep, eye opening, stimulating, challenging. Arun took me into a whole new realm of musicality and depth. The first time we worked together, it was an immediate sense of challenge and he pushed me to challenge him and ensure that musically, I would equal him through dance. There is no element that is stronger than the other: they have to work side by side. He also further gave me the confidence to take risks in performance: that the ‘live’ element is truly live with the choices I would make. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but that’s the point.

How did you come to study and master Bharatanatyam?

I started training in Malaysia as a young 5 year old. By the time I was 10, I was very fortunate to be chosen to be a disciple of the legendary dance Guru of Bharatanatyam, Padma Shri Adyar K. Lakshman. I was 16 when I was presented in my full length solo debut and literally I was so blessed that my career immediately took off. The very next year, I was invited to inaugurate the renowned Music and Dance Festival at Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai which is I guess the Royal Opera House of Chennai when it comes to classical music and dance. Everything happened rapidly from there. I am far from being a master, but I live my life steeped into the form and keep going deeper and deeper to find more freedom.

You’re fluent in so many different dance styles, but what do you think is particularly special about Bharatanatyam and classical Indian dance as a whole? 

I think what is really particular about Bharatanatyam when it is done well, is first and foremost the notion of interpretation of text with a strong musical backbone- what we refer to as Abhinaya. When this is done well, it is truly a transcendental experience. Yes, there are other elements like its pure dance technique, rhythm, lines, foot work. But, for me, its uniqueness and artistry and the element that can’t just be learned and produced without a deep sense of surrender is this. I would say that this is the case of Indian classical dance as a whole.

You’re also going to be doing a live coaching session with BBC Young Dancer finalist Lakshmi Ranjan. What do you hope audiences will be able to take away from watching the relationship between student and teacher?

It’s very specific, what I will be doing with Lakshmi. When the idea of a session was suggested, I felt it was really important to share the depth with which we work and should work. The idea of interrogating a line to find innumerable possibilities of interpretation is something that is special of all classical interpretive roles. The same can be said when one is coaching Giselle or Swan Lake. What do we do when we revisit these classics? What more is there to search? These are some of the things I wish to share with Lakshmi and the audience.

Sadler’s Wells is staging Darbar Festival for the first time. Are you excited about any other performers or shows at the festival?

Extremely excited! Mythili is one of the most exceptional dancers of her generation, dearly loved and admired in Chennai and all around the world. Aditi Mangaldas is a legend and Dheerendra, I have heard so many fantastic things about him so I can’t wait to see him. I am of course so happy that Akram will be dancing – what he gives in his dance today is something beyond form. I am also happy to see that Seeta Patel has been given such a good opportunity, as this is a good benchmark for other British-based young South Asian artists to work towards.

Darbar Festival ran at Sadler’s Wells on 9-12 November.