DESH to hit the boards

After its world premiere in London in September 2011, DESH had the critics outdoing each other in their use of superlatives. They agreed that Akram Khan’s show was no less than a masterpiece and called it his best work yet. On the BBC, they described Khan as “the king of contemporary dance”, while the Guardian referred to DESH as “the most urgent, beautiful and confident work of his career”. In fact, Khan became so popular in the UK that he was chosen to dance in, and choreograph, parts of last summer’s spectacular opening show for the London Olympics. This week Khan will be presenting DESH to a Danish audience here in Copenhagen.

The show is a full-length contemporary solo dance, choreographed and performed by Khan himself. Born in 1974 and raised in London but of Bangladeshi descent, Khan is celebrated for his captivating choreography, which often draws parallels between the East and West. DESH, meaning 'homeland' in Bengali, is no exception. In this deeply personal performance, he explores the nature of his own Anglo/Bangladeshi identity as he weaves threads of memory, experience and myth into a surreal world of surprising connection. The performance also symbolises and embodies the chaos but also the hopes of Bangladesh and its people, who are among the most economically and environmentally vulnerable in the world.

In the official press release before the world premiere of DESH, Akram Khan puts words to some of his thoughts behind the show. “The voice of this journey is Bengali, the first language and sounds I heard as a child,” he explains. “Bengali provokes thoughts of home, but despite being at my core, I cannot dream or think in Bengali, only in English. This duality of self, of origin and of lives lived, is explored through DESH, together with the elements of earth and water that are central to Bangladeshi culture and the sad reality that Bangladesh is likely to be one of the first countries to perish under the rising sea levels caused by world environmental pollution: our disposable culture wiping away the country of my ancestors.”

For the production, Khan has teamed up with Oscar-winning visual artist Tim Yip (production designer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), lighting designer Michael Hulls, the writer and poet Karthika Nair and the Olivier Award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook. Together they have created the extraordinary visual and acoustic landscape in which Khan’s performance takes place.

The show is an intense 80 minute-long performance with many pace and scene changes throughout. However, the opening of the show is simple and low-key: Khan walks on to the stage with weary steps, holding a lamp. He then puts down the lamp and takes a sledgehammer that he starts swinging on to a small mound, which makes a sound that reverberates around the auditorium. The sound gradually integrates with Jocelyn Pook’s percussive music, which mimics the sounds of the modern urbanised world, and Khan suddenly finds himself in a noisy, bustling city bewildered by street sounds and dodging imaginary traffic.

In a series of scenes that deliver increasingly sophisticated visual installations, including an animated projection of trees, birds, the sea and an elephant, Khan interacts with the installations through mime and dramatic shifts. He also interacts with himself in different roles, because even though the performance is a one-man show, there are many characters on the stage. His depiction of his father, who is a central character in the show, is achieved by the simple but effective device of having a face painted on top of his bald head and performing bent-over so that he almost becomes a puppet.

A spectacular night at Skuespilhuset is expected, and if you want to see for yourself what all the critics have been raving about, don’t leave it too late, as there are only two performances.      

Skuespilhuset, Store Scene, Sankt Annæ Plads 36, Cph K; performances Wed & Thu 19:30; tickets: 95-395kr,; 80 mins without intermission