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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Dance review: Desh by Akram Khan

It was a poster at Angel tube station that grabbed by attention and alerted me to this performance: the word DESH in huge letters. While others may have walked by without so much as a blink, it meant something to me. I’m Bangladeshi and have heard the term ‘Desh’ banded about many times when talking about The Homeland (a translation of Desh.) Not that it’s my homeland, like Akram Khan, I’m a Londoner and probably the only thing we have in common with one another is that both our parents would constantly talk about this place that neither of us actually have a real connection to.
There’s a poignant interview with Akram inside the shows programme by dance critic Lyndsey Winship that I read as I waited for the show to begin at Sadler's Wells. And so much of it touched me. Akram, who directs, choreographs and performs in this one man show talks about the ‘concept’. As a boy his father always tried to tell him about Bangladesh but he admits ‘I never had the right kind of headspace to listen to him when he was alive, when all he was trying to do was communicate with me.’
I can’t summarise my own feelings in a better way. So much of my childhood was spent trying to avoid my parents talking about Bangladesh, it felt really irrelevant and boring and by the time I woke up and realised that I would only truly understand who I was if I got to know my parents better it was too late. And now all I have is memories. Many of which were evoked as I watched this incredible, rare and moving performance; stories of Bangladesh, told through the eyes of several characters, including his father, all shared through the medium of dance.
I am by no means a dance critic. I love to dance but I don’t actually know anything about it other than I know what I like (this) and what I don’t (an episode of Strictly). Realising you’re watching just one performer is a strange experience as a member of the audience. Normally your eyes can take a break and wonder to the background artists, yet here you were faced with one character at a time. It was intense and vivid but unexpectedly it was not like watching one man on stage dance.
At times I thought I was watching a puppet show, flicking through a childrens story and even watching a 3D animation. There is a particularly stunning scene which starts off looking like the opening credits of In The Night Garden and turns into a chase through a forest with animals like a giant elephant and slithering snake that Akram’s character interacts with. It captures so much creativity and imagination and makes you feel utterly special to be there, witnessing something so magical.
Despite there being no interval (the performance lasts 80 minutes) there was no sign of Akram’s energy fading. He danced, spoke, moved and even hung upside down among a sea of cloth curtains. The set and lighting were remarkable. Each story/anecdote was presented in a different part of the stage and echoed different emotions. In the last scene I had tears in my eyes. In it Akram is listening to a voice message from his dad. Perhaps it was the last words his dad said to him, or they are the words he remembers the most. I’ll never know (although he is doing a Q&A after the show on Friday’s performance)…maybe I don’t want to know. All I do know is that it brought back floods of memories of my own dad calling me (he barely spoke, we’d have 10 second conversations) but his voice was ringing in my ears.
I’ve never seen such a personal and open performance. Diaries can be recorded in many ways. Mine is writing my blog and Akram’s is through devising dance. I admire him so much for that. Seeing one individual do a solo performance is inspiring on many levels but when you know the background, that the show is semi-autobiographical and that the whole artistic team flew out to Bangladesh to properly understand the land and to get ideas and inspiration, it makes you feel like anything is possible and achievable, no matter how ambitious or far-fetched your visions seem.
As Akram came on for his well deserved fourth encore, all I wanted was a giant hug but sadly there was no one there (everyone else was busy standing up and applauding), so instead I went home via Sainsbury’s and bought a pack of Highland Shortbread fingers (one of my dads favourite biscuits) and ate six of them in one go. It made me feel close to him, even if it did add half an inch to my waist!

Desh continues at Sadler’s Wells until this Saturday 8th of October but there’s only limited ticket availability. After that it’s heading straight to Hong Kong then one night in Belgium until a more extensive European tour next year taking in Luxembourg, Austria, France and the Netherlands. 

All images by  Richard Haughton 


  1. what an amazing dance piece... the sets look wonderful... and how it touched you and your own experiences... so powerful... art at it's very best. i am sending you a virtual hug (( x )) and don't worry about adding to the waistline, Highland Shortbreads are worth it! x

  2. bbc2 culture show featured this piece.. will pob be on iplayer later