When Akram Khan premiered Desh in the autumn of 2011, it was universally hailed as the then-37 year old choreographer’s masterpiece. An intenesely personal work that examines Khan’s relationship with his own father and, by extension, his familial homeland of Bangladesh (the “desh” of the title).
Since that premiere, Khan’s beautifully poignant contribution to Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony has brought his work to an even wider international audience than before. The return of Desh to Sadler’s Wells finds the choreographer paring back to intimate solo mode and telling a story of recovered identity that speaks to us precisely because it is so deeply Khan’s own.
Although the piece is performed solo, its myriad sections introduce a herd of other characters to the story. Some remain invisible, but are summoned to the stage by Khan’s interactions with them — like the hyperactive niece who wants a story (about gods, demons and Lady Gaga), or an offstage mother repeatedly chastised in rapid Bangla. Others are conjured up by Khan’s shapeshifting body: bowing his head, Khan reveals his own father drawn on the top of his skull, as hunched and stooping as the dancer is usually elegant and erect, worrying away at himself with restless fingers. He depicts his own sullen teenage self in perpetual conflict with the patriarch, caring little for stories of the old country.
Yet other chaacters live in imagination and are brought to life with a combination of mime and Tip Yip’s jawdroppingly beautiful animations. As Khan narrates a folktale from the Sundarbans, a hand-drawn pair of shoeloaces elongate into a boat, a river, a forest full of friendly creatures twinkling with henna patterns. Khan ducks and dips among the animations, climbing trees and stealing honey. This fairytale land is part of of his Bengali heritage — a shimmering and magical part that is brightly-coloured and safe.
Forces of darkness and danger encroach on this very heritage as the violent narrative surrounding the formation of Bangladesh as an independent nation breaks into the folktale. A tank rolls into one side of the animation; later we see campaigners for independence shot down, also in animated form, as they protest against an unseen enemy. Family, folklore and history become inseparable Attempting to narrate the story of Bonbibi to his invisible niece, Khan discovers that she’s already heard the story of the warring nations from her grandparents.
Another family story from the time reveals Khan’s father as a humble cook who wanted no part of the war, but who was brutally tortured anyway. Discovering the story, Khan finally comes to an understanding of why his father’s national and community identity is so important to him. We see him running through a field of grass “so tall it seems to grow from the sky” to celebrate Khan, his father and Bangladesh itself finding their feet.
Desh balances moments of light and shade beautifully. It’s highly personal without being mawkish, uplifting without being slushy, eventful without being overcrowded. Rooted in the narrative traditions of Kathak, the piece shows off Khan’s remarkably facility with a wide range of movement material, and reveals him as a storyteller second to none on the London stage this summer.
Akram Khan – DESH is at Sadler’s Wells until 15 June. Tickets from £12
Londonist saw this performance on a complimentary review ticket