Review: Akram Khan - Desh - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 2 - 9 October 2012
Reviewed by Jefrey Gordon Baker - Thursday 4 October 2012

Akram Khan's 'Desh'. Photo: Richard Haughton

Reviewed: 2 October

After Akram Khan’s eloquent turn in the opening ceremony of the Olympics this summer, he is certainly one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, and one of the giants of the contemporary dance world. His solo work Desh is a large scale production with an ambitious thematic scope, currently showing in a second run at Sadler’s Wells having picked up rave reviews last autumn -and an Olivier Award in April this year. The piece has a quietly personal focus which allows it to be more gentle meditation than towering monument. However, as meditations go, it is in its subtle way, an epic.

The piece opens with an invocatory bang. After a few moments of what seems like quiet prayer-like reflection, Khan brings a sledgehammer down onto a small ritual dais with a hole in its centre; striking this altar in solemn rhythmic blows he seems to be calling a world into being. As the hammer falls ring out, the rectangle of light he inhabits widens and brightens, and we are engulfed in a bustling soundscape of city noise, into the midst of which Khan begins to dance. His signature melding of classical Kathak and contemporary forms seems to weave scenes of beggars and businessmen, street vendors, stray animals and children. The magic is that all of these images appear momentarily like the crests of waves, in the lyrical current of Khan’s dancing body.

Jocelyn Pook’s sweepingly cinematic score and Nicolas Faure’s sound design immerse the imagination further within the fairy tale folds of Tim Yip’s visuals and a stunning lighting design by Michael Hulls. But Khan’s virtuosic talent as a performer breathes life into all of it, matching the scenographic spectacle wonder for wonder. The piece is an expressive and personal portrait of Bangladesh and the sacred and profane tendrils of its western diaspora. Careening from mythical
allegory to anecdotes about a call centre worker and a malfunctioning iPhone, told in the melodic mixture of accents and tongues characteristic of different generations in an immigrant family.

There are multiple stories played out both in voiceover texts, visual motifs, illustrating the many flip sides of a cross-cultural encounter. There is a clever and poignant section in which Khan seems to embody his father. With a face painted on the top of his own bald head, he hunkers down and evokes character through expressive gesture, employing the skills of a puppeteer as much as those of a dancer. In other sequences he interacts similarly with animated projections and his own shadow, manipulating these intangibles like material props, an apt bodily metaphor for the experience of a child of immigrants.

Simple and high tech visual effects are used interchangeably and the same, in a way, is true of the words. The text written by poet Karthika Nair, spoken word artist PolarBear and Khan himself, alternates between prosaic and poetic in measured doses, designed to offset the dream logic of the more fanciful elements that are the real soul of the piece. Even when Khan is meant to be speaking directly, rather than being amplified live, his voice is a clear and relaxed
recording. This device allows him to keep moving unhindered, but also separates movement from thought in a way that allows the viewer to connect the two for themselves. The effect is like that of a child listening to a bedtime story with eyes closed, just before sleep; the images of the tale intermingling freely with the musings of her own imagination. Indeed, despite being in the large auditorium of Sadler’s Wells theatre, the experience of Desh was insistently
intimate, feeling as though it were being performed for one person alone as opposed to a capacity audience.

There is the definite impression that Khan’s own experience as a Britain of Bangladeshi heritage informs the stories that comprise the work, but Desh is much more universal in appeal. At one point later in the piece a rainforest of silky ribbons descends onto the stage and Khan wanders through it. Either lost or in pursuit of someone or something, he appears in glimpses as wind through the leaves, the fabric fluttering from his passing. When the forest lifts up again,
he is floating. Upside down he spins above the stage, flying just below the canopy.

Though appropriately relayed in the language of cryptic fantasy, the message of Desh seems to be that straddling the divide between East and West, Britain and Bangladesh, can be as freeing as it is confounding. Khan’s masterful performance is the centrepiece of this work; the dynamic glide of his body leads us through his own and others’ collected stories of a land that whilst always present in mind and memory, is also never fully his own. But it is the innocent and elusory dreams of a child, suspended between two worlds that are its true subject matter.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 9 October. Currently sold out, but try for returns

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a New Yorker in London studying for a PhD in Aesthetic Theory at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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