On 15 September, Leicester’s state-of-the-art theatre, the Curve, opened its doors to hundreds of dance enthusiasts who had been eagerly anticipating the world premiere of DESH, the latest choreographic offering from award-winning choreographer Akram Khan. Lucinda Al-Zoghbi caught up with the man himself during an intensive day of rehearsals.
It’s a cool, breezy August afternoon the day I travel to Leicester and the minute I enter Akram Khan’s rehearsal I am instantly knocked back by the surge of creative energy that buzzes around the room. Khan and his production team occupy a row of seats in the stalls of the Curve’s 750-seater theatre auditorium, where they are deep in conversation about a technically complex sequence in the piece. That Khan is at the forefront of the decision-making is true to say but what’s even clearer is how much he respects his team’s opinions; he uses their perspective to help inform his artistic choices: “…there are a lot of people involved in this project and I consider myself very lucky to have such a supportive team…” Indeed their input is a vital part of Khan’s creative process.
After the success of his last work, the full-scale company piece, Vertical Road, I am intrigued as to why he decided to make his next project a solo. “I’ve been wanting to make a solo for a long time but it always ended up as a duet.” He goes on to list how his collaborative duets Zero Degrees, (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), Sacred Monsters (Sylvie Guillem) and in-i (Juliette Binoche) all began as solos – even Vertical Road was originally conceived as a one-man show. Now, it seems, Khan will finally have the full-length contemporary solo that he’s been longing to make. “I think I was terrified before…I didn’t feel ready to do a contemporary solo. I have no one else to confront on stage but myself and that’s what terrified me the most…” Now that he’s doing it, making his long-awaited solo, he acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages that that sort of project entails. “It feels challenging because it’s such a shift in thinking. Somehow when you make work for yourself, you know how to get what you want quicker – it’s not necessarily that you know what you want but once you do know what you want, you can get it quicker.”
That DESH is a solo made by Khan, for Khan, means that if he’s not careful, he could lose touch with the piece holistically. It’s not just about the movement but the music, lighting, costume, spatial setting and how all those elements come together in the choreography of theatre performance. Well rest assured, Khan maintains an awareness of the piece, and its direction, by working closely with his rehearsal director, Jose Agudo, who is as much a part of the process as Khan is. “[Jose] has been wonderful…he learns the material which gives me a sketch of what it all looks like. Once you’re in it [the piece], you can’t always see the bigger picture so I put Jose in there as an understudy somehow.”
While DESH means homeland in Bengali, Khan makes it clear that the piece is not a tribute to Bangladesh: “…it just happened to be the fortieth year this year of Bangladesh’s independence…” In fact, Khan adds that it was his visual designer, Tim Yip (whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) who suggested the idea of a piece about the origins and homeland of Khan’s parents, “…it [the piece] is inspired and based on the relationship between my father and me. It’s my father who carries the desh [homeland] because he’s from Bangladesh.” Khan and his team took a trip to Bangladesh during the early stages of the process in order to research the place and its people. The trip was supported by the British Council who gave them the resources they needed. “We met a lot of people from farmers, fishermen…to poets, political activists and journalists…we wanted to smell it [Bangladesh], taste it, absorb it.”
When asked about his thoughts on cultural identity, Khan muses that cultural identity hasn’t changed, it’s us that have changed and that we’ve changed our way of looking at it. But cultural identity isn’t at the forefront of his agenda; he’s more concerned about human identity. “I’m interested in what it means to be human and, underneath all of it, in DESH it’s about man versus nature. That’s what Bangladesh reveals for me, not me being British or me being Bangladeshi but about me not finding my place, as a human being against nature. Nature is changing and we’re changing it.”
Although DESH is being sold as a contemporary solo, there is clearly more than meets the eye. DESH doesn’t do as it’s told and sit in a corner marked ‘contemporary dance’; rather it misbehaves, breaks the rules (if indeed Khan was ever following any) and runs kicking and screaming into the wider world of dance possibilities. Khan adds familiar movement from his kathak training to the contemporary and infuses these with hip-hop, kung fu and even ballet. I witness Khan and Jose (Agudo) working on a kathak section, or at least that’s how it begins. The sequence seems to be in nritta or the pure dance element but knowing Khan’s style there must be a narrative in there somewhere. Trademark movements such as his electrically-charged chakkadar spins, vigorous arm gestures that allow a precise fluidity in the wrists to frame the head, and thunderous stamp of feet all point towards a classical recital. Further, Khan recites the parhant syllables, follows the structure of his chosen cycle, the eleven and a half beat Dharami, and incorporates distinctive kathak aesthetic qualities – but then comes the rain; not a light shower of codified movement but a dramatic storm of cross-genre dynamics. Khan contemporises classicism with ripples, popping and locking, and isolations which are more commonly associated with hip-hop. The pulsating rhythms of the tabla tremor throughout the body, the hands take a fisted position; there is a distinctive grounding, a heaviness: kathak has reached a new place.
When asked if he feels he has a responsibility to paint a true picture of the people of Bangladesh, Khan responds with a definitive “No”. Of course, a one-word answer is not his style and he continues: “that’s the thing about art, you can make the truth the biggest lie…” Essentially Khan is concerned with truth and untruth. He elaborates: “DESH starts with my father’s death but my father’s not dead, he’s actually coming to see the show so it’s already a lie. That’s the power of theatre, the beauty of theatre…this is a performance of my interpretation of Bangladesh, it’s my truth.” Well there you have it, one man’s truth in the best way he can harness it – through his art.
DESH runs 4–8 October at Sadler’s Wells, London.