Dance artist Akram Khan captivated Toronto audiences when he performed at Canadian Stage this month. Khan is internationally renowned for his contemporary dance works, and for choreographing a section of the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. DESH, his most personal work to date, is a full-length solo he first created and performed in 2011, exploring themes of identity, survival and resilience against the backdrop of Bangladesh, the homeland of Khan’s parents.The solo opens at the grave site of Khan’s father. A combination of dance, story, mime and projected animations, the work is multilayered and complex, at times quiet and subtle, at others theatrical and grand. At its deepest level, however, the piece is a dialogue with his father, an attempt to connect with him, his culture and his history. Khan plays a cast of characters, including a young girl, his father the cook, an activist and a rebellious teenager. The stories he weaves into the dance have both tragic and comic elements, reminding us that people may indeed be fragile, but they are also resilient. Khan is fascinated by water and earth, elements which are plentiful in Bangladesh. For Khan, the idea of fluidity within form seems to be at the forefront of his work. “Bangladesh is constantly under threat with water, the cyclones and flooding,” he said in a Time Out London article. “And yet they find new ways to live amongst the monster, the beast of nature. I feel like they’re extremely inventive in the face of such calamity and that’s something that really inspired me.” A master of character work and mime, Khan is also a beautiful and accomplished dancer. His movement vocabulary is part-Kathak (a classical Indian dance form), part-Western modern dance. The speed with which he spins and turns is something to behold—the eye cannot even fully register it. Khan dances with urgency, passionate attack and fluidity; it is an achievement of physical endurance. DESH also enjoys stunning production design by Tim Yip, the Oscar-winning production designer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A standout feature is the beautifully lit panels of petal-like draperies that are lowered from above near the end of the piece. When Khan dances within them it’s breathtaking. The score is also compelling, a collage of found urban sounds and melodic music from Jocelyn Pook, the award-winning composer of Eyes Wide Shut. After the riveting performance, Khan stands centre stage and waits patiently until the crowd has quieted from its rousing standing ovation. Then he speaks to us warmly, about the piece, his family and his father, who is not, in fact, dead. The fictional device simply allowed him to explore his complicated relationship with his father and his father’s homeland. This is a beautiful way to end the evening—the choreographer as himself, grounded and authentic in his artististry.
Visit akramkhancompany.net for more information about the work of Akram Khan and the company’s touring schedule.Photo by Richard Haughton