Review: Akram Khan in DESH at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 4 - 8 October 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Thursday 6 October 2011

Akram Khan 'Desh' Photos: Richard Haughton

Reviewed: 4 October

Akram Khan has been part of the UK’s dance consciousness for well over a decade, and yet Desh (“Homeland”) is the choreographer’s first full-length solo presentation. Citing terror of performing alone on stage, Khan has frequently invited partners and collaborators from dance and other disciplines to share the stage – actor Juliette Binoche in In-i, Sylvie Guillem in *Sacred Monsters**, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui* in the excellent Zero Degrees – in works that began life as solos. But on the strength of Desh, one can only wonder what took Khan so long to strike out on his own.

Not that he is ever completely alone in the frame of Desh – the stage is shared by a wealth of characters, some inhabited by Khan himself, some conjured up by stage magic. In one sequence, we find Khan ducking and swerving through a street filled with invisible subcontinental traffic, all bicycles, beggars and cars on the wrong side of the road; in another, we see Khan frustratedly trying to narrate a Bangladeshi folk-tale to an imaginary hyperactive niece. The objects and people may not be visible to the eye, but they are palpable presences on stage.

In another, jaw-dropping section, Khan manages a remarkable feat of puppetry with his own head, dropping and rolling it from arm to arm, transforming himself in speech and body into a local village cook. As the show progresses, this figure – a “small man” with no power – becomes identified with Khan’s father, and his story begins to contain stories of torture and violence during the struggle for independence.

Such moments of darkness add grit to the spectacle. In a magical sequence animated by Tim Yip, we find Khan climbing high into a forest of line-drawn trees in search of honeycombs, winding his way through the treetops and offering a taste of honey to a friendly snake coiled around a branch. The stylised hand-drawn animations are beautiful, Khan’s performance entrancing; just as we feel we’ve been whisked away into a charming Wonderland of sweetness and light, the tanks roll up.

A stunning final sequence finds Khan running through the grassfields of his father’s native village, the grass so tall it seems to grow from the sky – and here it does, in the shape of many hundreds of ribbons descending majestically from the rig. Khan runs and plays among the ribbon-grass, finally ending up hanging among it himself, Jocelyn Pook’s captivating score swelling around him as the monsoon starts to break. Magic and darkness combine again as the whole rig descends to the stage, leaving Khan stranded among the swamplike ribbons around his ankles; Bangladesh’s eternal struggle between land and water continues as the field is washed away.

Khan has touched on his cultural past before – in Gnosis, he performed a series of shorter solos in the classical Kathak of his early training, reconnecting publically with both technique and tradition. Here, the movement material is drawn from a wider range of sources – fluid spins merged with agile drops to the floor and a brief burst of Michael Jackson-inspired popping – but the narrative essence of Kathak is never far from the surface. That Khan is an effortless technician and a sublime performer is already well-attested; here he reminds us that he is also a master storyteller.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sat 8 October. Some tickets left **”“:

What’s On