Akram Khan Company and the National Ballet of China - ‘bahok’
Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, UK; May 13, 2008
Through dialogue and dance “bahok” explores relationships between a group of people stuck in an airport departure lounge. It’s a place most of us will have experienced at some time, and choreographer Akram Khan has brilliantly captured the feeling of long periods of boredom punctuated by bursts of energy and hope as the departure board that dominates the stage flickers into life, only for it to be immediately doused as ‘delayed’ or ‘please wait’ appears once more.
It is sometimes powerful, sometimes humorous, sometimes thought-provoking piece, driven along by the energy and eight dancers, five from Khan’s own company and three from the National Ballet of China. A Bengali word, “bahok” means carrier and the work explores the ways we carry our heritage, experiences, dreams and aspirations with us. Together the dancers bring a rich heritage of spoken and dance styles and traditions, Western and Eastern, modern and classical. Only rarely though did we catch sight of dance or movement that could be seen as coming from a specific tradition, such as when Meng Ningning and Wang Yitong gave us a short terre-a-terre ballet sequence and Indian-born Saju showed some martial arts poses.
The central character was provided by the livewire Eulalia Ayguade Farro who seemed constantly on edge. In many ways, she was the fellow traveller from hell, clutching a piece of paper that seemed to contain all the details of her life and wanting to talk to anyone and everyone. Every so often she would fizz into live and show amazing virtuosity as she tumbled and flew across the stage. Other moments that linger in the memory include a funny but in the end rather worrying and unnerving conversation with an invisible immigration officer, and Andrej Petrovic becoming the resting place for Wang Yitong’s slumped, totally exhausted and lifeless body. Every time he tried to extricate himself from her legs and arms things just got worse. It was like being sat next to one of those people who insist on invading your personal space, and every effort to move them away simply makes things worse, although I don’t ever remember such a situation finishing up like a live multi-armed Hindu god as these two did.
While Khan and the dancers’ ideas work well as solos or duets, the larger group sections feature lots of very repetitive unison work that also tends to be very square on with little attempt at tone or contrast. In fact, repetition is a problem generally. The work does get rather predictable as we move from one person to the next and movement ideas simply keep coming round again. Maybe that’s what being delayed is like, but it doesn’t always make for good dance.
“bahok”, which is admirably supported by Nitin Sawhney’s recorded score, is somewhat saved by the fast-paced end when Khan brings everyone together for an action-packed finale full of whirling arms and pounding movement. The board flashes ‘memories’, ‘home’, ‘hope’. But strangely there is no sense of closure or resolution for us or our travellers.
Despite the misgivings, “bahok” is a thoughtful piece that we can all relate to in some way. It is an acutely accurate observation of a group of disparate people stuck in transit. In some limbo that has no sign of ending. Maybe it’s sometimes a little too obvious, but it is a great advert for British (or should that be cross-cultural?) dance theatre.