Dance Review: Akram Khan, Desh @ Sadler’s Wells

When Akram Khan premiered Desh in the autumn of 2011, it was universally hailed as the then-37 year old choreographer’s masterpiece: an intenesely personal work that examines Khan’s relationship with his own father and, by extension, his familial homeland of Bangladesh (the “desh” of the title).

Since that premiere, Khan’s beautifully poignant contribution to Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony has brought his work to an even wider international audience than before. The return of Desh to Sadler’s Wells finds the choreographer paring back to intimate solo mode and telling a story of recovered identity that speaks to us precisely because it is so deeply Khan’s own.

Although the piece is performed solo, its myriad sections introduce a herd of other characters to the story, visible and invisible – a hyperactive niece, a hunched father, Khan’s own sullen teenage self. Yet other characters are brought to life with a combination of mime and Tip Yip’s jawdroppingly beautiful animations; Khan ducks and dips among an animated jungle, climbing trees and stealing honey. This fairytale land is part of of his Bengali heritage — a shimmering and magical part that is brightly-coloured and safe.

Forces of darkness and danger encroach on this heritage as the violent narrative surrounding the formation of an independent Bangladesh breaks into the folktale. A tank rolls into one side of the jungle; later we see campaigners for independence shot down, also in animated form, as they protest against an unseen enemy. Family, folklore and history become inseparable; another family story from the time reveals Khan’s father as a humble cook who wanted no part of the war, but who was brutally tortured anyway. Discovering the story, Khan finally comes to an understanding of why his father’s national and community identity is so important to him. We see him running through a field of grass “so tall it seems to grow from the sky” to celebrate Khan, his father and Bangladesh itself finding their feet.

Desh balances moments of light and shade beautifully. It’s highly personal without being mawkish, uplifting without being slushy, eventful without being overcrowded. Rooted in the narrative traditions of Kathak, the piece shows off Khan’s remarkably facility with a wide range of movement material, and reveals him as a storyteller second to none on the London stage this summer.

Akram Khan – DESH is at Sadler’s Wells until 15 June. Tickets from £12

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