In 2011, Akram Khan premiered his solo show DESH, a work that was instantly hailed the masterpiece of his career so far, and one that put him at the forefront of contemporary choreography and dance on an international scale. In the intervening years, Khan has performed at the Olympic Opening Ceremony with Emeli Sandé- an emotive tribute to the victims of the 7/7 Bombings that was controversially excluded from American coverage of the ceremony- and been awarded an MBE. It is riding high on this public exposure and recognition that Khan returns to Sadler’s Wells this month with DESH, a piece that is auto-biographical and confronts many of the issues central to Khan’s identity both on stage and off; issues such as his mixed heritage (he is British-born into a Bangladeshi family), his youth and his perspective on the rapidly-changing world (at one point in DESH he is confronted with an Indian call-centre worker who admits to being only 12 years old.) Khan’s show is utterly triumphant, gripping and energetic from the first moments where Khan beats a metal weight with a large jackhammer, sending shudders through the audience as shock turns to nervous laughter. As the piece unfolds, we are taken through the streets of Bangladesh and Britain, jumping through spheres and spaces with an ease and fluidity that is accomplished only through the grace and skill of Khan’s movement, which borrows from his training in traditional Indian Kathak and combines it with the aggressive, sharp motion of modern dance, allowing him to convey the hustle and movement of modern city life both in Britain and in India.
Khan has explained, “I am fascinated by water inside the earth, it is the core principle of the way I think and move, fluidity within form” and this approach extends to his storytelling in terms of structure as well as movement. At times, the angularity and elegance of the Kathak movements bring to mind the Voguing of the Drag Ball culture in the 1980s. It is this way in which Khan’s choreography weaves East and West, old and new, that makes it so exciting to watch; his shows are true cultural palimpsests and in this way, they comment on post-colonial identity and dual heritage in a way that cuts to the core of globalisation and hybridity. Key to the impact of Desh is the set and lighting design, for which Tim Yip (visual artists and previously the production designer for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Michael Hulls (fellow Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist lighting designer) are responsible. These elements combine to facilitate Khan’s storytelling in a way that really blows the audience away, chiming perfectly with the stories and scenes conceived by Khan with writer and poet Karthika Nair and music by the Olivier award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook. Most compelling, beyond the intricacy and beauty of the choreography, sets and sounds, is the sheer physical power and strength of Khan’s entirely solo performance; his grey shirt soon hangs heavy with sweat and instead of this shattering the fantasy of the narrative, it is a mesmerising display of Khan’s effort- the linen fabric becoming almost like parchment. At the end of the show, Khan received a standing ovation from an audience left in no doubt as to the measure of his pioneering talent.