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Flash Review, 7-11: Homefull
Cohabitation with Akram Khan & Co.

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "Bahok," seen June 14 at Sadler's Wells Theatre, is Akram Khan Company's latest collaboration, this time with three members of the National Ballet of China. This work sums up why Khan has favored the process of collaboration in recent years: It's a way of reaching out not only to other dance and artistic disciplines but also to other cultures. The product of a Bengali family raised in London, Khan questions identity, culture and traditions in his work and believes strongly in, as he puts it in the program note, "acquiring new knowledge through reviewing the old knowledge and traditions," reflecting his own background as someone steeped in traditional Indian classical dance as well as cutting-edge contemporary performance processes. In our global society people are constantly on the move, whether through choice or necessity, and Khan argues that this is fine as long as we don't forget what we've left behind. He comments on our rapidly evolving society and talks of the "momentum of shifting," which prevents our contemporary society from becoming 'static.' Similarly in his work, he avoids stasis largely due to his lively, curious brain and the diverse groups of artists with whom he works. "Bahok," one of Khan's most challenging collaborations to date, interrogates from different cultural perspectives the notion of 'home.' A search for a universal understanding of what home means to people who are constantly on the move, the piece features Khan's company (already made up of an ethnically varied group of people) getting to grips with the language, movement and geographical distance of the dancers from the National Ballet of China.

"Bahok" (Bengali for 'carrier') starts off literally as a journey, with a group of international travellers waiting under a 'departure board' on which the letters keep changing rapidly. Whether it's meant to be a station or an airport, the scene is a familiar one for all of us, as are the associations it rouses of delays, arrivals, new beginnings, partings and the ensuing emotions: frustration, boredom, excitement, nervousness, sadness. The passengers break off into small groups or pairs as they endure the tedium of waiting for their chosen destinations to show up on the board; some sleep, some hum along to their iPods, some read. As time passes there are misunderstandings and even a fight, but there is also sharing and intimacy. Gradually literal ideas melt into metaphoric ones. Cultural differences arise through the encounters between performers, language and dance styles being the obvious ones. An intense Italian woman (Eulalia Ayguade Farro) tries to communicate with a Chinese woman (Meng Ningning, a principal with the National Ballet of China). Ningning sits patiently for a while trying to understand, but then, unable to cope with the frantic gesticulating and general ranting of her unhappy fellow passenger, she politely retreats back to her own cultural group. A calm Indian man (Saju) takes the place vacated by the Chinese woman and reads his newspaper, at first unruffled by the Italian woman's invasive questions, but eventually the Italian woman is too overbearing as she obsesses forcefully about her own identity and he moves away quickly. Soon she becomes the 'pariah' who everybody tries to avoid, the one member of the group who is the most lost and confused.

The dialogues build up into a climax which then bursts into a rush of fast and furious movement sequences performed by all eight. This scene is initiated by Farro, who flies across the stage at high velocity, leaping repeatedly off the floor by way of a backward somersault and hand-stand, followed by the classically trained Zhang Zhenxin of the Chinese contingent, who executes an impressive series of explosive leg kicks and speedy spins. The Asian-influenced score by long-time Khan collaborator Nitin Sawhney, a mixture of ambient sounds and strong beats rooted by sitar and tabla, the voices of Indian tradition, adds the final touch to this electrifying movement section. It's an effective evocation of the charged atmosphere at an airport, with serious delays and angry passengers.

Throughout the duration of "Bahok," metaphors of 'home' are evoked through dialogue and physicality; Saju waits impatiently for his mobile phone to ring to hear a voice from home, Farro tries to remember where her home is by playing games, the Korean character, Kim Young Jin, lost in transit, searches for sympathy and directions from unhelpful immigration officers. A slow sensuous duet is performed by another of the dancers from the National Ballet of China, Wang Yitong, and Saju, who become intertwined in a tangle of limbs and resemble the god Shiva. Momentarily they stop their searching and morph their two cultural identities into one. South African dancer Shanell Winlock and Kim Young Jin enact a tricky interview with immigration officials about who they are and where they are from. The conversation goes round in circles with the suspicion and hostility of the imaginary immigration officer preventing any progressive communication. Symbols of home -- personal belongings -- are produced by the passengers, in their final attempts to persuade the stubborn authorities to allow them to move on: an old battered suitcase and a man's shoe, each one inspiring a solo. Memories carried in the objects are transferred onto the body.

Language and words trigger much of the choreography, but it's a fluid relationship; most of the action centers around the words which flash up on the 'board,' such as 'delayed' and 'rescheduled,' and the fragments of conversations heard among the dancers. As time passes the words on the board become less literal and more cryptic. The names of the four elements, fire, air, water and earth appear on the screen, and are embodied by the performers in solos which draw not only on the physical training of each, ballet, contemporary and Asian dance, but also on the personal characteristics of each dancer. Towards the end, under bright harsh lighting by Fabiana Piccioli, the dancers move in strident unison, swinging arms and turning defiantly in one common search. One feels that this group of people will never reach home in spite of their perpetual motion. Finally they begin to embrace each other, forming a knot of human bodies, as if they are creating some universal physical manifestation of home. Even Farro manages to find her way in, propelling her body forcefully through any gap between the bodies.

Each one of us clings to some notion of a fixed identity that is firmly rooted somewhere. What I like about Khan's work is that he makes us question this, through reflecting on both his own identity and that of his dancers. Through behavior, movement, text, theatrical setting and music he doesn't come up with clear answers, but disconnects 'home' from it's literal meaning and offers an alternative interpretation: a collection of personal memories and a handful of material possessions that each one of us carries with us wherever we are.

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