Desh

Akram Khan Company

Out of Asia Season

Sadler's Wells and touring

(2011)

Review by Vera Liber

Akram Khan premiered Desh, a love letter to his father's country, an exploration of his cultural inheritance, his ethnicity and identity as a British Asian, feet in two camps, at The Curve in Leicester in September. It received enormous praise.

It will receive more as it tours throughout 2011 and 2012 to London, Hong Kong, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Netherlands and France. It truly is the pinnacle of his artistic achievements so far. Maybe this new confidence can be explained by his company's three-way partnership with Sadler's Wells and Grenoble's MC2, resulting in greater financial stability.

Maybe it is an accumulation of international collaborative experience, and wisdom. But his growth in stature as an artist - dancer, director and choreographer - from the development of his Kathak and contemporary dance roots - has been uniquely his own. This brave solo may prove to be his coming of age.

Eighty minutes of eye-watering grace and beauty from a marvellous dancer - that goes without saying, he was always an extraordinary dancer - a captivating storyteller and dramatic actor. Technically sophisticated, Desh pleasures the senses. To watch his body being blown by an invisible wind is enough.

He speaks, changes shape, and moves like no one else, emotions ripple through his body, the drama of life condensed and played out in expressive mercurial dance. Like a stock reduced and simmered to perfection, the essential essences now concentrated to a mind-blowing intensity.

Khan travelled to Bangladesh as part of the research for this piece. It obviously made a huge impression on him. Much is incorporated into Desh: industry, physical labour, traditional culture, village life, manic noisy traffic (how effective strips of light and sound can be), an army tank, and wonderful flora and fauna.

Telling Indian folktales to a little girl, arguing with a call centre in India, he flips between his dual cultures. He flips characters, too, taking on the movements of an old man, transforming himself by a mere drop of the head.

The top of his shaved head becomes the face of an old man, a village cook. Between slumped shoulders the head takes on a life of its own, rolling from arm to arm. You have to see it to believe it. He is himself and everyman. Smoke, Water, and Air his natural elements - intelligence and wit too.

This is a labour of love, a personal piece - a dangling man in a contradictory world. Hanging by his feet, lost in a forest of white fabric strips, dancing with his torso, his arms, hands, and head. A striking image. There are many more that take the breath away. And his dancing leaves one open-mouthed.

But he has not done this alone - he has surrounded himself with an amazing team of collaborators: lighting artist Michael Hulls who sculpts with light, patterning the floor and walls, opening and confining the space; visual artist Tim Yip of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame; award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook; writer and poet Karthika Nair and visual animators Yeast Culture.

Shadow play, soundscape, music, words, and pictures integrate into a mesmerising evening for adults and older children (he does use the f-word occasionally). Stepping into the magical world of animation, white on black like a film negative, he is the only one in colour.

A large white elephant, creepers, birds and butterflies, stars light the sky, snakes and crocodiles awaken in the jungle. He fights off the bees to get to their honey, and climbs the tallest tree. He meets a boy in shorts too big for him. This is the story he tells the little girl, who would prefer one about Lady Gaga… Generational and cultural differences. Fact and fiction.

Desh (homeland) tells it like it is for him. It is written on and by his body. Big white chair, little white chair; big boy, little boy... It takes time to appreciate one's heritage. The British Asian boy rebels against the ways of his parents; the father can't understand why the boy is talking 'like a black man'.

A necessary journey for Khan; a fantastic aural and visual event for the audience. Billboards and shantytowns - and shantytowns made of billboards. If only one could understand the graffiti - ah, the bonus of speaking two languages, of knowing two cultures intimately.

"Desh" runs until 8th October 2011