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Akram Khan: 'Desh'

by David Mead

September 15, 2011 -- The Curve, Leicester, UK

“Desh” means homeland in Bengali and in it Akram Khan brings together numerous tales as he explores his Bangladeshi roots and the contradictions of his British-Asian identity. It is quite obvious from his performance that this is an intensely personal journey of discovery. The fact he makes us believe fully in him as we share his memories and thoughts speaks volumes. At no point did the attention waiver in the whole 85-minute solo performance. This is, without doubt, the most arresting and beautiful work he has produced to date.

The stories are heard through recollected anecdotes and a recorded soundtrack that features telephone conversations with his distant father and a call-centre operator, the hubbub of a Bangladesh city street and music by Olivier award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook; and designs by Oscar and BAFTA winning Tim Yip of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame. All the time, though, they are given visual form by Khan’s non-stop body. The noise of the city with its hooting traffic and people calling out is embodied in movement as Khan twists and turns, being buffeted as if forever leaping out of the way of cars or dodging pedestrians, his arms often circling and wrapping round his head as if the chaos is causing incredible internal distress.

Another scene features an elderly cook from father’s village who used to provide for everyone. Khan magically produces a second characterisation thanks to an ingeniously painted face on his bald crown. At first the face and the tale is amusing, but later the mood changes as we move to Bangladesh’s 1971 fight for independence and how the soldiers stripped to skin from his soles. “Now let’s see you stand on your own two feet,” they say.

There is humour too as Khan talks with his father, one a typical London teenager, the other steeped in Bangladeshi attitudes and values, and especially later as he tries to tell a traditional Bangladeshi story to his young daughter, who is full of questions and distractions. The story is told with the aid of some wonderful digital, chalk drawing-like cartoons projected onto a gauze. A boat, forest, birds, elephant, snake and much, much more come and go, Khan interacting with them with amazing precision. He really does make it look like he is climbing that tree. But even among the innocence, the problems of the real world are never far away, the beauty of the projected images being shattered suddenly and unexpectedly by the arrival of a tank.

Whatever the scene, whatever the story, Khan seems torn. The confusion and chaos of his personal life and that of Bangladesh are laid bare for all to see. “Desh” is beautiful right to the end when a forest of hundreds of ribbons of white silk descend and engulf the stage. It’s a memorable metaphor for the state of his mind. Khan looks lonely figure as he moves among them, searching it seems for answers and a way out. He does eventually emerge, suggesting hope for the future.

“Desh” continues on tour. Confirmed dates include London (Sadler’s Wells), Hong Kong, Bruges, Luxembourg, St.Polten (Austria), Chalons-en-Champagne (France), Grenoble and Paris. See www.akramkhancompany.net for details.

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