© Richard Haughton
Almost in a fairytale-like setting, illustrated by a moving curtain of larger-than-life black-and-white picture book drawings, Akram Khan seems to be climbing up a tree and up to the treetop, meets upon an elephant of enormous size, enjoys the rain pouring from the sky, eats honey from a beehive – until a little boy appears, silent, who when Khan tries to talk to him moves away, for fear – when Khan finds himself targeted by a tank. This scene is more than halfway through Khan’s solo, but in a way, it is a recurrent theme of the entire work, made of intertwined episodes and stories.
And this is what Desh (“homeland” in Bengali) is – a solo by Akram Khan, inspired by his journey back to his homeland, Bangladesh, which offers an idea of the life in Bangladesh and its history through Khan’s eyes and performance of his own choreography. The stories, imagined by Karthika Nair and Akram Khan, stir up emotions and associations with war, war crimes and poverty, trauma and conscience, nature and people, hope and life – all the while continuing the tradition of storytelling by Khan’s generation, the second generation Bangladeshi immigrants in Britain.
Proving an impressive master of storytelling, Khan, dressed in simple clothes (Costume Supervisor: Kimie Nakano) throughout the solo, represents different characters for each of the stories. Incorporating pantomimic elements in his choreography, the essence of Khan’s dance movements is full of energy, with expressive arms and hands as well as his facial expression being a characteristical part of his body language. Imbued with elements from martial arts, Khan’s movements are at once striking, whereas in other scenes, his movements are replete with strong emotions, and even pain expressed through his body language becomes tangible.
The cooperation of all the parties involved in this performance is equally remarkable. Alongside the changing set (Visual Design: Tim Yip; Visual Animation: Yeast Culture; Set Construction: Sander Loonen) and lighting design (Michael Hulls), Khan’s performance is complemented by sound elements (Sound Design: Nicolas Faure). It may be Khan’s hammer blows on metal, with an earth-shattering noise, symbolizing the hardship of manual labor at the outset of the first scene, for example. In another scene, you find yourself in the midst of the traffic buzz in Bangladesh: In one moment, Khan is a pedestrian trying to cross the road, next he is imitating the familiar movements of a traffic policeman, and then he is mimicking a beggar on the side of the road, with all images being evoked in one flowing dance movement of smooth transition across the entire stage. Yet other scenes are accompanied by musical scores (Composer: Jocelyn Pook) inspired from Bangladesh, intensifying Khan’s expressions of longing and aching for his roots.
Thus taking the audience back and forth between the stories and then again to the contemporary time, Khan is talking on the phone, calling a helpline from Britain, at the other end of the line being a 12-year-old boy in Bangladesh. In another scene near the end of the performance, through a curtain of panels, you catch a glimpse of the little boy from the storybook picture scene as if to suggest that it was not just a story or dream, and you are left to wonder about the connection. And the tragic end of a central theme of the solo, the story of the Bangladeshi cook who because of his small size was forced to work for the Pakistanis inside the turbines of the fighter jets during wartime, is made palpable by Khan appearing to fight against the jet blast, accompanied by the noise of a fighter aircraft taking off. It is in this way that Khan manages to tell multiple interwoven stories, each closing the circle one after the other until the end of the performance, and leaving the audience to ponder the seen tale.