Akram Khan's episodic work of dance-theatre is a animated encounter with his own personal mythology, the symbols which orientate him between two countries, England and Bangladesh. And it made a deep impression on the opening night audience, with Khan himself sent off with a standing ovation.
It's the fourth production from the Akram Khan Company to tour Australia, the fifth if you count his work on Kylie's Showgirl concert. It is also Khan's first full-length contemporary solo work. That last fact is somewhat surprising – the prodigiously self-confident and talented performer and choreographer seemslike just the kind of artist who would be most comfortable working on his own. Who could better articulate the undulating rhythms and relentless plasticity that mark his unique choreographic style than the virtuoso himself?
Yet it seems that Khan loves nothing so much as collaboration. Even here, DESH is not really a "solo". Khan's performance is only one element in a busy complex of sometimes spectacular and overwhelming design elements. The work of animators Yeast Culture and Tim Yip, the visual designer, as well as Michael Hulls, lighting designer, is integral to the telling of the story. Jocelyn Pook as composer and Karthika Nair as writer and poet also make stand out contributions, given the show’s strong sense of narrative consistency and drama.
Still, it seems to me that this show is at its strongest where our attention is squarely on Khan himself – perhaps something wryly pointed to by Khan himself in a recurring reference to “tech support”. In one sequence – extraordinary for its comedy, poignancy and virtuosity – Khan turns the top of his head into a kind of hand puppet, using it to evoke the spirit of his father (who is in fact still living). It is a remarkable exhibition of his mimetic abilities and bodily control, as well as being a loving and joyful, if also cheeky, tribute.
The further DESH wanders from Khan’s own family, and from his own body, the less impressive it seems. In particular, his handling of the political unrest in Bangladesh under the long period of martial law seems somewhat pat, and perhaps shows a personal sense of estrangement from those events. In contrast, his engagement with the war of independence, told via the sufferings of his father, is utterly gripping.
Khan is a well-loved figure here in Australia, a fact which has as much to do with festival director Brett Sheehy's consistent advocacy as the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, where Khan had a starring role. When finally he emerged on the other side of this sometimes tumultuous cultural collision, the audience seemed to collectively breathe out. Highly recommended.