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REVIEW: AKRAM KHAN'S 'DESH'

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 18 MARCH 2013 Desh, the work created and premiered by Akram Khan in September 2011, which finally reached Paris this winter, is one of the dancer/choreographer’s most outstanding and brilliantly conceived pieces. Less pure dance than previous works, it is an amazing amalgam of theatre, videos, mime, magic, and poetry. But when Khan hurls himself into a dance sequence, his arms and hands moving faster than one’s eye can follow, using contemporary gestures imprinted with vertiginous Kathak inspired spins with his feet stamping out rapid, intricate rhythms, his movements, always full of grace, are of breath-taking beauty.

Composed of several tableaux in collaboration with the poet, Karthika Nair, and ostensibly a one-man show featuring Khan ‘alone’ on stage for an hour and twenty minutes, it is ‘peopled’ with imaginary figures so that one is left with the impression of a multi-faceted cast.


Akram Khan in Desh
Photo: Richard Haughton

Desh, which in Bengali means homeland, is the story of a personal quest where the British born dancer and choreographer goes back to his roots to discover what it means to be the child of Bangladeshi parents. The relationship with his father seen against the changing climate of Bangladesh is at the centre of this superbly dramatic and theatrical work.

"I can’t think the way he thinks", laments the son, ‘my clothes are different and his memories are not my memories".

The piece opens onto a bare, dimly lit stage, with Khan entering with a lantern looking for something. He holds a sledgehammer aloft before bringing it crashing down repeatedly onto an iron plate as if trying to get to what is beneath. The sounds shudder and reverberate throughout the auditorium.
From this stressful beginning, we follow him to the squalid and crowded streets of Bangladesh, where he is dodging traffic and moving from side to side to avoid imaginary people and bicycles whose bells are constantly ringing. He is lost in the midst of the chaos and deafened by the noise of honking traffic. He is both at home yet a foreigner. Taking a ride through grimy streets bordered by decaying buildings with rusting tin roofs and broken bricks, he questions who it is who defines what third world means.


Akram Khan in Desh
Photo: Richard Haughton

"It’s not bad for a third or fourth world", he said his teachers told him.

In one incredible sequence, the dancer brings an old cook to life as, leaning forward with his head hanging down, we see he has a face drawn crudely in black grease on the back of his skull. With hunched shoulders, and the head seemingly detached from the body, Khan even dances differently as he narrates the man’s story, of how he was the cook for his whole village.

Michael Hulls’ lighting and Tim Yip’s remarkable designs contribute to transporting the spectator to a different planet, to a poverty-stricken country with camps of refugees living in appalling conditions, all aggravated by the water-logged fields from the repeated monsoons.

But then the mood changes as we are spirited to the fairy tale world of Yeast Culture’s dream-like video which projects poetic images of an animated forest onto the stage. Before one’s bemused eyes, a small girl’s shoelaces turn magically into a length of rope which subsequently snakes around itself into a boat. Bees swarm around Khan as he climbs up the tall trees to steal the honey from the Honey bees and their queen. Flocks of exotic birds and exquisite multi-coloured butterflies materialize around him as he walks through the jungle, meeting first an elephant and then a crocodile, but the sequence comes to an abrupt stop when a monster chasing him turns into an army truck.

The monsoon bringing disaster is never far away, and the work comes to its spectacular end when rows upon rows of white streamers, blowing in the wind, descend from above the stage, creating a magical rainforest. Khan then appears suspended in the air, spinning around upside down as if underwater before he is swept away.


Akram Khan in Desh
Photo: Richard Haughton

Visually sublime, it is nonetheless Khan’s genius which enthralls. Together with a brilliant team of collaborators, including the inventive musical score composed by Jocelyn Pook, he has created a unique work which is not only a strong political statement, but also an autobiographical account where outstanding sequences of dance are interspersed with the events of everyday life.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Swiss choreographer Martin Schläpfer.

Headline image: Akram Khan in Desh
Photo: Richard Haughton

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

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Not Quite Dance or Theatre - Call it Ars Gratia Binoche

Akram Khan Dazzles in 'Third Catalogue '

East Meets West in Sacred Monsters

An Interview with Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan

Dance Review: Akram Khan Company

Akram Khan: Beyond Kathak



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