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September 17, 2011
Reviewed by Donald Hutera
Akram Khan’s previous solo performances have showcased his brilliance as a practitioner of kathak, the fleet-footed Indian classical dance style in which he trained from boyhood. While kathak still features prominently in his new work DESH, here it’s at the service of a much bigger theatrical vision than any he’s previously attempted in a one-man show. Epic yet tellingly personal, Khan’s stunning production feels like a culmination of everything this gifted British-Bangladeshi choreographer has been striving for (falteringly, at times) during the past few years.
“To choreograph,” Khan once remarked, “is to be a storyteller.” There are several interwoven narrative strands in DESH (the Bengali word for “homeland”), some more clearly defined than others, but Khan is firmly at the center of them all. The characters he either embodies or suggests include a manual laborer who struggles to cope with an urban environment conveyed entirely through Khan’s highly physical reactions to a clamorous, effects-laden soundtrack. He also enacts all of the characters in a fairy-tale (which we hear him telling to a child, via pre-recording), set in a magical digital landscape. Khan plays aspects of himself, as well, whether the high-pressured but privileged global contemporary artist he now is or the rebellious young man he was when still living at home in London with a more traditional, foreign-born father.
What emerges from this material is both a sense of what it means to claim a cross-cultural identity, as can Khan, and to be a citizen of Bangladesh in the 21st century. (I suspect it’s no coincidence that DESH has premiered during the 40th anniversary of that country’s independence from Paksitan.) What also comes through with dazzling certainty is Khan’s increasing maturity as a performer and a maker of dance-based work. His dancing possesses a fluid, full-bodied muscularity that’s thrilling to behold; when he glides about the stage to what sounds like an impassioned pop-protest song, the mixture of pleasure and pain he conveys is almost overwhelming.
But it isn’t just his dancing that shows that Khan is in top form. There’s a scope, poetry, and purpose at work in DESH that, handsome as the piece is, indicates it’s more than just eye candy. The designs are by Tim Yip, an Oscar-winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; his most breathtaking contribution to the performance is a coup de theatre moment when thousands (2600, to be exact) of silken strips of cloth descend from overhead, a materialization of an earlier allusion made in voiceover to grass growing down from the sky. (Another impetus for the show is Khan’s concern for Bangladesh’s precarious position as a seaboard nation that could disappear if climate change causes the ocean to rise.) Michael Hulls’ sensitive lighting and the music of Jocelyn Pook also play their part in conjuring mood and atmosphere. But, again, it’s Khan who is the fulcrum of all the haunting sounds and head-filling imagery so beautifully and meaningfully assembled here.
Photos: Akram Khan in DESH. © Richard Houghton, courtesy Kallaway.