At 42, Akram Khan continues to perform his unique contemporary/Kathak hybrid style of choreography with a fire, speed and attack that – no exaggeration – put most 18-year-olds to shame. However, while he is not, thank heavens, even remotely bowing out from the stage yet, he has announced that, after this short revival at Sadler’s Wells, he will never again perform his first solo work, DESH.
If true, this news is galling (because the show is just so damned good), but also heartening. DESH is an 80-minute, interval-free, mini-marathon of a dance work in which Khan is never offstage. There would, inevitably, come a day when he might struggle with the demands it places on both technique and stamina – but, as Wednesday night’s performance confirmed, that day still feels decidedly distant. How typically intelligent of him, then, to want to leave us only with perfect memories of it.
Created in 2011, this intensely personal tapestry of vignettes – magic-realist, part fact, part fiction – sees the Wimbledon-born Khan set out to explore and rediscover his ancestral homeland of Bangladesh, and thereby draw closer to his father and better understand himself. The (fictional) jumping-off point is that Khan’s father has died, and the piece comes across to a large extent as the exchanges that Akram wishes he had had with him about the country and how it shaped him, had he not been too much of a callow young whippersnapper to bother listening.
In fact, a couple of brilliantly realised passages come across as recreations of actual, heated exchanges between the two of them, from Khan’s youth. In these, Khan represents his father by drawing a face on top of his head and tilting it towards us. This might sound improbable, even mocking, but the synchronisation between dialogue and motion is flawless, while Khan’s choreography – in which his (father’s) head appears at once to float independently of his body, and to be weighed down by intolerable cares – is just astonishing.
As these passages suggest, DESH operates with an elliptical but seductive kind of dream logic. One minute, Khan is paying a sombre vigil to what we imagine is his father’s grave; the next, he is pounding it with a sledgehammer, as if trying to gouge his way both through the earth and back in time. Meanwhile, his defiant embracing of Michael Jackson (a genuine passion and fundamental influence on him as a boy) cuts to an edgy scene of a very different kind of rebellion, on the streets of Dhaka.
Adding to the piece’s sense of ever-shifting reality is a strange, jet-engine-like contraption on the stage that veers between representing an oven, an improbable hiding place, some kind of time portal and even a common-or-garden telephone. Certainly, while the tech-support thread that runs through DESH supplies much of the comedy, it also provides a very un-sugar-coated glimpse of a nation in which a slum-dwelling, largely disenfranchised 12-year-old (here, called Jui) might be very grateful for the security of working in a call centre.
As in the show’s previous three runs at Sadler’s Wells, the climax, in which Khan’s newfound appreciation of Bangladesh leads to his appearing to fuse bodily with the furious monsoon rains, makes an indelible impression. However, it is an earlier episode, in which he enacts a Bangladesh-set fairy-tale that he’s telling his fictional niece, that yet again had my jaw dropping in wonder. I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen dance, lighting, music and simple projected animation put to such bewitching use on a live stage – and yet, even here, Khan and his team of masterful collaborators still acknowledge that real life refuses to be entirely banished from even our most extravagant fictions.
At time of writing, DESH is on for three more nights, none of them yet entirely sold out. Do yourself an improbably generous favour, and go.
Until June 3. Tickets: 020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com