Dance: Akram Khan, DESH, Sadler’s Wells

Akram Khan 'Desh' Photos: Richard Haughton
Akram Khan has been part of the UK’s dance consciousness for well over a decade, and yet Desh (“Homeland”) is the choreographer’s first full-length solo presentation. Citing terror of performing alone, Khan has frequently invited partners and collaborators from dance and other disciplines to share thestage – actor Juliette Binoche in In-i, Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in the excellent Zero Degrees – in works that began life as solos. But on the strength of Desh, one can only wonder what took Khan so long to strike out on his own.
Not that he is ever completely alone in the frame of Desh – the space is shared by a wealth of characters, some inhabited by Khan himself, some conjured up by stage magic. In one sequence, we find Khan ducking and swerving through a street filled with invisible subcontinental traffic, all bicycles, beggars and cars on the wrong side of the road; in another, we see Khan frustratedly trying to narrate a Bangladeshi folk-tale to an imaginary hyperactive niece. The objects and people may not be visible to the eye, but they are palpable presences on stage.
In another, jaw-dropping section, Khan manages a remarkable feat of puppetry with his own head, dropping and rolling it from arm to arm, transforming himself in speech and body into a local village cook. As the show progresses, this figure – a “small man” with no power – becomes identified with Khan’s father, and his story begins to contain stories of torture and violence during the struggle for independence.
Such moments of darkness add grit to the spectacle. In a magical sequence animated by Tim Yip, we find Khan climbing high into a  forest of line-drawn trees in search of honeycombs, winding his way through the treetops and offering a taste of honey to a friendly snake coiled around a branch. The stylised hand-drawn animations are beautiful, Khan’s performance entrancing; just as we feel we’ve been whisked away into a charming Wonderland of sweetness and light, the army tanks roll up.
A stunning final sequence finds Khan running through the grassfields of his father’s native village, the grass so tall it seems to grow from the sky – and here it does, in the shape of many hundreds of ribbons descending majestically from the rig. Khan runs and plays among the ribbon-grass, finally ending up hanging among it himself, Jocelyn Pook’s captivating score swelling around him as the monsoon starts to break. Magic and darkness combine again as the whole rig descends to the stage, leaving Khan stranded among the swamplike ribbons; Bangladesh’s eternal struggle between land and water continues as the field is washed away.
Khan has touched on his cultural past before – in Gnosis,he performed a series of shorter solos in the classical Kathak of his early training, reconnecting publically with both technique and tradition. Here, the movement material is drawn from a wider range of sources – fluid spins merged with agile drops to the floor and a brief burst of Michael Jackson-inspired popping – but the narrative essence of Kathak is never far from the surface. That Khan is an effortless technician and a sublime performer is already well-attested; here he reminds us that he is also a master storyteller.
Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sat 8 October. Some tickets left

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Dance: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Merce Circus, Stratford Circus

Merce Cunningham Company 'Square Game' Stratford Circus, 1 & 2 October. Photos: Anna Finke.

Casual passers-by walking past Stratford Circus on Saturday night were arrested by a ten-foot tall film projection of Merce Cunningham’s popular 1991 piece Beach Birds on the wall opposite. Love it or hate it, there’s something uniquely mesmerising about Cunningham’s signature combination of fine-honed bodies and technical precision with Zen-like chance procedures and the apparent randomness of events onstage. This weekend, Stratford Circus celebrated both aspects of Cunningham’s legacy by filling the building with a series of works and artefacts, which viewers were invited to explore and experience using their own set of chance operations.

The centrepiece – and most conventional performance element – of Merce Circus was the company showing of Squaregame,
an ensemble work from 1976. The piece reveals the choreographer in playful mood; on a white square of dance flooring, the dancers explode into a frenzy of rapid twists, tilts and turns, skipping lightly across the stage and appearing unexpectedly from behind what look like sacks of ballast. Those sacks are sat on, tossed around, and at one point used by a dancer to bounce across stage like a child on a space hopper.

A softer moment finds Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber balancing tentatively on demi-pointe for what seems like uncomfortably long, sending trembling knees to the right and left with deliberation until Weber curves sensuously back over Mitchell’s supporting torso. Takehisa Kosugi’s avant-garde score, more melodious perhaps than some of the company’s other soundtracks with its synthesised strings and wavelike ambience, is made extra-special by the 73-year old composer’s presence in the sound booth playing the score live.

As is common in Cunningham’s works, the dancers represent only themselves – dressed in blue and grey rehearsal clothes, they cut and step around the stage in groups of twos and threes, erupting into bursts of unison before falling again into individual movement patterns all based on that distinctive technique. Squaregame’s title is perfectly suggestive of the piece’s form and content: it’s a dance played like a game, the dancers proceeding from corner to corner with bison leaps and tricky triplets, and it’s shaped like a square. No narrative, no psychology, just the Cunningham dancers doing what they do best.

After the performance comes a chance for members of the audience (selected, naturally, by a chance procedure involving coloured wristbands) to learn a piece of repertory with Director of Choreography Robert Swinston. Field Dances (1963), described by Cunningham as “a dance for x dancers performed for x minutes” was inspired by children playing outside in Colorado, reflecting the choreographer’s interest in presenting all forms of movement as dance.

In the main theatre, meanwhile, another group of audience members gets to create their own dance by chance in the Move Cubes workshop, led by company Executive Director Trevor Carlson and Company Manager Kevin Taylor. One set of dice lists possible actions including walk, twist, fall and jump; another set of plain dice are used to choose anything from the length of time a movement is performed to the number of people performing it and its placement on stage.
The random fall of the dice inspires uncommon movement choices and unexpected connections – my partner and I have a great time putting together a short sequence of taps, nods and balances that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. I don’t know if the end result is a work of genius or madness, but it’s tremendous fun to make and perform and Trevor seems to like it well enough.

Elsewhere in the building are more film screenings of company tour diaries, early experiments with blue-screen (Cunningham was always interested in the creative uses of film and technology), interviews and rehearsals, and a music concert by Tekahisa Kosugi with electronic composers David Behrmann and Jesse Stiles. Archivist and Cunningham expert David Vaughan invites viewers to investigate company artefacts and rifle through his index cards, answering questions about the choreographer and company.

Downstairs in the foyer is a looped screening of five short filmed works by East London Dance associate artists Tony Adigun, Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster, Simeon Qysea, Alesandra Seutin and Rosie Whitney-Fish. With movement styles from pulsating Africanistic dance to funky Hip-hop, the five artists explore Cunningham’s ideas and working methods to produce five distinct homages to the man.

Merce Circus is more than just a performance showcase for Cunningham’s work: it’s a very genuine, enlightening and above all fun insight into the processes and practice of the legendary choreographer. My only disappointment is that there’s no chance of it returning.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2011.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company are at the Barbican Theatre, 5 – 8 October.
(Last ever UK performances of the company – who disband on 31 December 2011, in accordance with Cunningham’s wishes)

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