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Akram Khan in his "Desh," photographed by Richard Haughton.

Copyright 2011 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- To see Akram Khan's "Desh" at Sadler's Wells, October 4, some weeks after Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Tezuka" was again to witness a spotlight on Asian identity, in this case a personal reflection on Khan's own experience as second generation British Bengali. Continuously on stage for his 80-minute solo, Khan is supported by an impressive creative team and with their help he delivers an autobiographical work which is one of his most compelling. Jocelyn Pook's score, Tim Yip's designs and Yeast Culture's animation are all as equally enthralling as Khan's unique movement style, characterized by its eye-blurring speed, fluidity, supreme softness, intense muscular control and strength, a style which has been informed by a lifetime's research into both traditional Indian dance and western 'new' dance techniques.

Khan leads his audience to the core of Bangladesh, or rather a Bangladesh as discovered by a second generation, UK-born Bangladeshi. Using a collage of different voices which each tell a story about his 'Desh,' (which translates as 'land' or 'country'), Khan takes us with him through a maze of socio-political, mythical and artistic events which have shaped his understanding of his parents' country of origin, a country which fought hard for its independence, struggled with political uprisings, military coups and ethnic bullying; which suffers acute natural disasters, floods and famines; but which celebrates a multitude of rich traditions. In between intense dance sequences characterized by sequences of speedy turns which hurl him down into the floor and back up to a vertical position, he slips easily into conversational dialogue with his audience, switching between English and Bengali, as he recollects conversations he's had with daughter, his father or other Banglas encountered on his journeys between London and Bangladesh. Each imaginary conversation combines humour and tragedy. He conveys a sense of urgency to understand the country and connect with it from the confusing position of his London identity, one which has little time for tradition and retrospection.

Khan re-lives and regrets the conversations he had with his father in which his hurtful, rejecting comments about not wanting to speak Bangla in London or connect with his roots might strike a chord with any rebellious teenager growing up in the Asian Diaspora. He tells Bangladeshi fairy tales to his daughter, to help her understand the resonance of her Bangla heritage, scolding her for not listening and for being more interested in Lady GaGa and Barbie dolls. He assumes a demanding manner when calling his I-Phone tech support team to ask for help, then when he realizes that the woman he's speaking with is sitting in a call center somewhere in Bangladesh, breaks into Bangla himself, expecting that to make a difference to the unimpressed operator. Each conjured conversation is one to which we can relate to whatever our experiences, the bilingual snippets being familiar to the ears of anyone who has traversed any big city today.

Themes that have always been important to Khan re-surface in his performance. The speed of his thrusting and creative European lifestyle is suggested in the speed of his movement. His obsession with fluidity in the body is connected to his fascination with water under the Earth and how Bangladesh's very existence is threatened by rising water levels. Other themes which relate to the elements are also explored in the conceptual designs of Tim Yip, such as a huge curtain of fluttering white silk strips which at the end descends slowly and graciously onto the stage, enveloping the figure of Khan in a deluge of silk. There is also a gigantic wooden chair on which Khan sits, a small contemplative man in a big world, before jumping down and taking up position on the chair beneath it.

Yeast Culture's black and white animations create an intense visual experience of Bengali landscapes and exotic animals. When Khan tells a Bengali myth to his daughter about an enchanted forest we are submerged in that story through watching animations projected onto and chasing across a screen positioned downstage. Khan interacts with the animations as he runs along in front of the screens, appearing to climb trees and cross oceans, encountering an enormous elephant or running from a sea serpent. It is an amazing display of fantasy and magic and is cleverly juxtaposed with scenarios in which Khan describes the more mundane and frustrating occurrences of daily life in this country of extremes.

Everything is infused with Bangla flavour, even Pook's pre-recorded music, her haunting female voice mixed at times with Bangla pop music or a more hard-hitting, tribal tabla. Khan weaves narrative, dance, music and design to expose the essence of Bangladesh and we are left pondering its complexities, its beauty, and its constant renewal.

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