Akram Khan, the celebrated choreographer and dancer, has just put two works on at The Lowry. And, like the Bangladeshi style Kathak dance of his ancestry and the English Ballroom of his adopted home, they are very different indeed.

Khan is a dancer of Bangladeshi descent, who has transported audiences all over the world with his incredible craft. His style is modern, energetic and incorporates interactions with sets and sounds that take the experience to a new level. His work Desh, first performed in 2011, is the apotheosis of his art, exploring past, present and future, and asking what it means to have roots in an increasingly integrated world.

Having enjoyed stage success for a number of years, Khan has taken his art into an exhibition. One Side to the Other (OSTTO) is a collection of sculpture, sound and photography that attempts to deal not so much with cultural history as with opposites, like light and dark, loud and quiet, pain and pleasure. Less charming and cheerful than Desh – though that work too has its dark moments – it has the same gripping quality, and is quite unlike any other exhibit I have seen.

While one takes place on a stage and one in a gallery, there are still many similarities in their form. Both Desh and OSTTO make use of many mediums, with dance as the narrative and sound and image adding tone and texture. In Desh this is best represented by a beautiful passage where Khan swoops from branch to branch through a blue cartoon jungle, projected onto the stage’s mesh screen. The composition and timing of this work, and the simplicity of the images, take you back to childhood. It’s almost like stepping into a scene from The Jungle Book. OSTTO meanwhile has a section where a dancer collapses and cavorts among wood chips, which you are then asked to walk through – in your socks, giving your feet a rare chance of a sensation other than aching during a gallery visit. This scene also conjures up images of youth, only these are frightening rather than fun, the sorts of scary sounds and spaces you might imagine when walking in lonely woods through a lightning-filled night.

Yes, the form is the same, but the message is very different. Desh brightens, inspires, amazes. The harmony with which the whole piece resonates, the sheer scope and quality of the work, leaves you feeling uplifted as you exit the theatre. You have learned about the darkness of the past, and particularly of his father’s mistreatment during the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, but you have hope for the future, seen through the eyes of his daughter (whose voice is heard, but whose physical presence is indicated only by Khan’s movement). OSTTO does not achieve this effect, but nor does it try to. Its goals come from quite a different direction. Whether it is a silhouetted man dancing to a deafening bass line in front of a wall of bulbs, or a small blackened baby lying curled on the floor in a dazzlingly white room, the overall effect is like having a heavy object pressed on your chest: it oppresses, offends, unnerves. You want to leave but know that you can’t, and find too that there is something compelling in all the ugliness about you.

I said in my opening that these two works are very different, but they are actually dealing with the same question: what does the modern world mean? In the past we were connected to location by limitations of travel, tradition and the necessity of supporting – and being supported by – our immediate family and community. But with cars, trains and planes, not to mention supermarkets, the internet and international commerce, that is no longer true. So, what does hold us in place? What are our roots? Who are we really becoming? And what sort of world are we creating? Khan offers us two perspectives. In Desh, the past is where the trauma happened, and the future is where we will come to understand and accept what has gone before, finally at peace with ourselves and others. OSTTO meanwhile offers a much darker vision, one of spectacle, dislocation and a disturbing surge away from comfort and connection. A world where what it means to be human can only be understood through the prism of technology, rather than conversation and commitment to one another.

Desh and OSTTO show an artist capable of exploring past and present, left and right, good and bad with equal vigour. Khan’s use of still image, sound and animation in support of dance is well crafted, and by keeping dance at the centre he keeps humanity at the centre of this story. No matter what world we create, be it good or bad, we’re going to have to live in it – that is the message of Khan’s work.

Andrew Anderson

The One Side to the Other exhibition continues until Sunday 1 February.
Background photo depicts Lever II by Antony Gormley at One Side to the Other, taken by Ben Blackall.

Andrew Anderson