DESH by Akram Khan at the Macau Cultural Center, June 20, 2014

Snapshot - 8

DESH a solo performance by dancer/choreographer, Akram Khan with set design by Tim Yip, music by Jocelyn Pook, lighting design by Michael Hulls, and scripted by writer, poet Karthika Nair. Duration: 80 minutes with no interval

“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.” James Baldwin

Identity is a story we assemble from fragments, in the stories we hear from parent and other elders, and in the cultural icons we come to identify with. In DESH, which means ‘homeland’ in Bengali, we see a man in pursuit of those fragments and in this case masterfully weaving them together in a tableau of extreme beauty.

In speaking of the movement seen in DESH Khan says he recognizes and admires the work of his contemporaries like Pina Bausch with her Dance, Theater Wuppertal as well as other Western sources, Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as Buster Keaton to name a few, but he goes on to say that for this work he sampled the scenes of his ancestral home Bangladesh. We see the gestures of fishermen, taxi drivers, weavers, beggars and others who he encountered during his 10 day research mission to the shipyards and villages of Bangladesh.

Sledge hammer

Indeed the opening scene, a man hammering the grave of his father with a massive sledge hammer, Khan said was inspired by the 12 year old boys who he saw at Bengali shipyards pummeling massive sheet of steel, in an attempt to flatten them. As he points out the hammering symbolizes frustration. He also referred to a few instances where the Shaolin martial arts find a place in the work brought in during interactions with a movement trainer who practiced these arts.

As Sanjoy Roy, points out in his review of this work, “DESH feels very connected to Khan’s home ground: kathak. Not that it’s a kathak piece; rather, kathak’s mode of presentation – solo episodes in which the performer freely ‘becomes’ different characters and evokes the presence of others through gesture, mime and address – is abundantly present in DESH.*”

Movements

In a word the movements in this performance are convulsive, as Akram Khan himself puts it he has extreme bursts of energy, “You contain, and contain, and then explode on stage,” he said as he explained that he was always better at the 100 meter dash, as opposed to a marathon. But this does not translate into an assemblage of sporadic elements, here the movement is masterfully woven and fluid like the water which Khan claims as an inspiration. “I am fascinated by water inside the earth, it is the core principle of the way I think and move, fluidity within form…” he says in the program notes.

Snapshot - 9A

The stories of origin he weaves on stage are magical, There is a dream-like quest for honey by the son of a poor beekeeper, beautifully illustrated on stage with black and white video animated drawings. The animated exploration continues on a ship, an encounter with a white elephant (considered sacred in many Asian cultures), and a climb high into the trees of a virtual forest. Khan mentioned a reference to Alice in Wonderland when he elected to bring an over-sized white chair onto the set, its use evoking the different perspective and mystery of childhood. In addition, the artist constructs a shadow play at moments behind the chair calling to mind scenes of Asian puppet theater, or the scenes one might encounter as family life takes place behind the stage of a drawn curtain.

The heart touching interaction he has on set with an imaginary small girl, a niece, is a completely fictional interaction as Akram neither has a child, nor a niece, but it shows his extreme mastery and command of his production, clearly an artist with a keen sense of what is needed in the presentation. Through this scene you see as he clearly struggles with the words and stories of his father, which get internalized as fear in the ear of his niece. We see an attempt to find balance in negotiating the questions and duties of a parent figure in the present, while shouldering the burdens of the past.

Elephant encounter

DESH closes with a turbulent scene, an extreme struggle of man and machine, a huge industrial fan placed on set. He is blinded by a violently fluttering cloth which has blown across his face covered his head. At the same time his body is buffeted by the exhaust of the fan. Akram Khan went into great detail describing the origin of this prop, and its use, as he had to argue and justify its presence on the stage with his collaborators. Akram Khan explained that when he found the fan sitting at the back of a theater in Grenoble, France its sheer mass and state of ruin were what attracted him to the device, as he pointed out it was the kind of technology one would find in Bangladesh. He goes on to say, “This performance is a contemporary work and as such any object I use should have multiple meanings. You project memory onto an object.” In this case the fan closely approximated the jet aircraft engine which, as his story tells us his father had to climb into to clean, because he was a small enough man to do so, part of his job as cook for a crew of Pakistani pilots before Bangladesh’s independence. The scene becomes the struggle of a man fighting the winds of change, or the past and clearly overwhelmed by the task.

In an interview following the performance Akram Khan explains that this work, 2 years in the making, is not a memorial to a dead father. In fact he clarifies that his father is still alive and was present for DESH’s (2011) World premiere on 15 Sept 2011, at the Curve Theater, in Leicester London. So although the work is highly autobiographical and emotive it is not driven by the loss of a dead parent, or the guilt associated with it. As Khan explains it is stagecraft where art expands upon life and augments it.

*Sanjoy Roy WRITING ON DANCE
http://sanjoyroy.net/2011/11/akram-khan-desh/

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