With Bangladesh celebrating its fortieth year of independence, London-based, Bangladeshi-brained choreographer Akram Khan has taken a quest of massive physical and emotional proportions to create DESH, set to become one of his most personal works to date.
Akram Khan MBE began training in the traditional North Indian form of dance, Kathak, at seven years old. This initial stir of the soul sparked his curiosity of movement as he went on to study contemporary dance and unveiled the first solo performances of his work in the 1990s. His individual honesty and unprecedented ability of truly “listening” has catapulted Khan to be one of the most intuitive creators of dance performances of our time. With such skills he has established himself as a pioneer of interest and intrigue between the dynamics of different cultures and creative processes.
The stage is set for DESH to be a magnificent journey of sensory pleasure, following one man as he tries to find equilibrium in an unstable world. Complete with collaborations from Olivier award-winning composer, Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut and Brick Lane), Oscar and BAFTA winning visual director Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), British lighting designer, Michael Hulls, French-Indian poet and writer, Karthika Nair and Ruth Little as a dramaturge (phew!). ”I wanted to go back to my origin – in order to find and create something that will hopefully be an experience of lasting value”, i-D online spoke with Akram about his journey ‘home’.
DESH means homeland in Bengali. What does homeland mean to you? I am born British, but I feel Bangladeshi. However, when I go to Bangladesh, I feel like a foreigner. So to me, homeland is not a place that you could pinpoint on the world map. I know my body is my home. It is a place where I can find myself, even if I am in a foreign land. At the same time, it is also a place where I sometimes need to escape from to find answers.
How did you initiate your work on DESH? The making of DESH really kicked-off when all the collaborators went on an intense 8-day trip to Bangladesh in November 2010. We visited the capital city Dhaka and the third largest city, Khulna, where we met many people – from the locals to artists and activists. As a team, we had meetings every couple of days to throw ideas and thoughts together. This was important and useless, as we came to realise it was about exorcising our first (touristic) impressions of Bangladesh. For me, I just wanted to absorb the country and its rhythm, its colours, its sounds, its heartbeat. If I was busy talking, I would not have time and space to listen, to observe and to learn. So we spoke a lot in Bangladesh but it was in witnessing the place in silence, in stillness which gave me my greatest resource. We all took away a lot, to decipher, to assimilate, to understand and to finally recreate our own Bangladesh.
What are other influences specific to DESH? Although DESH is a solo work, I was fortunate to collaborate with many incredible artists to make this piece come to life. It was important to me that my collaborators in DESH, all accomplished artists in their own field, brought their own background and practice into the work. I didn’t set out to “fuse” Kathak and contemporary dance – my body made its own choice naturally to do so. There are certain styles that I wanted to investigate in this work, Bangladeshi folk dance, i.e fisherman dance, farmers dance, dance of revolution. After all, the last time I had tackled folk dance was over 30 years ago! I am a big fan of Bruce Lee too, so I have been taking some private martial arts class as well as revisiting breakdance classes from when I was a teenager.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not choreographing or dancing? I like to spend time with my family. Especially with my four year old nephew and also with my mother. She is very important to me. Oh, and I love watching films!
What emotions are you wanting to transmit through DESH? The one I am feeling right now, ‘Hope!’
What has been your fondest moment throughout this creative process? On the third day of our trip in Bangladesh, there was this little boy that I was filming on my iPhone. He was barefooted, wearing torn shorts and bare chested – he must have been around 10 years old. He just stood his ground and looked straight into my iPhone and then I stopped because I felt I was being intrusive and one-sided. As I put my iPhone away, he put his hands into his shorts, and took out his mobile phone and started filming me… I didn’t see that coming! What goes around, comes around…
The World Premiere of Akram Khan’s DESH takes place at The Curve Theatre, Leicester, from 15 – 17 September 2011, before beginning a world tour at Sadler’s Wells from 4 – 8 October. DESH is performed at Sadler’s Wells as part of the theatre’s Out of Asia season taking place this autumn.
Text: Katy Lowenhoff
Photography: Richard Houghton