Akram Khan’s work is always characterised by a strong narrative and in his latest piece, DESH, he tells his own personal story and in doing so delivers his best work yet.
Desh means homeland and Khan returns to Bangladesh, the place of his father’s birth to examine the roots of his family’s culture. The history and texture of the country is revealed to us through a series of discrete episodes and characters. One moment he is trying to avoid being run over as he dodges five lanes of city traffic, the next he is a bowed and cowed elderly cook from a Bangladesh village who has experienced the horror of war. Khan not only travels between cultures, he moves between generations. A vignette from his south London adolescence focuses on the teenage conflict between fathers and sons, typified by the teenager’s rejection of his father’s culture in favour of Michael Jackson. This contrasts with his own experience as a parent when he attempts to share fairytales from his own childhood with his daughter.
The richness of the world presented to us makes us forget that this is in fact an 80 minute solo performance. Through his own movement and physical skill Khan populates the stage with characters. Admittedly he is ably supported by an impressive creative team. The music by Jocelyn Pook helps to create location as it ranges from city soundscapes to traditional lyrical pieces. While the sets designed by Tim Yip, who art directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are a delight. In one scene Khan chases bees and climbs trees in an idyllic riverscape projection until the rural until the landscape is washed away by flooding.
The forces of nature are never far away and in the final scenes the ever present danger of monsoon is represented by flowing ribbons of fabric. Khan ascends amongst them and moves around above the earth below. There is a suggestion that he cannot challenge nature but must in some way reconcile himself to it, before literally coming down to earth. Likewise in this story generational and cultural difference can only be celebrated with the maturity and understanding. In the final scene Khan wears a traditional Bangladesh shirt, perhaps symbolising his recognition of his roots.
In Desh Khan has made an important voyage into autobiography. It is a privilege to join him and witness this wonderfully authentic and compelling solo performance.