A Danced Journey to the Homeland – Akram Khan’s “DESH” at the Rose Theater

DESH – U.S. premiere
Performed Nov. 6-7, 2013
Rose Theater at Lincoln Center

The curtain rises on a darkly lit stage. Carrying a lantern, the dancer, Akram Khan, makes his way to downstage center to kneel at the base of small mound, resembling the packed earth around a growing seed. Grabbing the large hammer at his side, he strikes the mound, unleashing a jarring metallic peal into the Rose Theater. The makeshift gong sounds again and again, a mystic fanfare for the intimate story Khan is about to tell.

DESH, which received its U.S. premiere this past week as part of Lincoln Center’s fourth-annual White Light Festival, is a brilliant evening-length solo created by English-born choreographer Akram Khan in collaboration with a substantial team of designers, writers, a dramaturge, and technicians. In Bengali, DESH translates to “homeland,” and Khan’s work is his documentation of his ruminations on family history, his parents’ homeland of Bangladesh, his upbringing as an Englishman, and his attempts to parse these influences together to create his own identity. A beautifully designed, technical marvel (at one point, Khan runs through a projected jungle; at another, he hangs from the ceiling by his feet, swimming through a stage completely filled with golden strips of fabric symbolizing his father’s “sky forest”), DESH is far more than a dance – it is Khan’s painstakingly personal offering of himself, his testament of love for and frustration with dance, his father, and Bangladesh.

Approaching this work through arguably the two most difficult choreographic forms to truly fulfill – the solo dance and the narrative structure – Khan navigates them with ease. His dance is the dance of his characters. A genius storyteller, Khan is at once himself, his father, his niece, a rebel, a lost child. Leaning forward to show the audience his shaved head decorated with a drawn-on face, Khan becomes his father, a hunched up, elderly man, shaking slightly but still very certain of the troubling, wartime memories from Bangladesh he shares. Later, running about the stage, Khan holds his niece’s hand as he tells her the story of the sacred bees in the forest, lifting her in the air and getting pulled off-balance just as if by a real child. Though Khan sees himself in each of these characters, they are, in the end, only symbols for his relationship with Bangladesh. Wiping the paint off his head, he realizes he is not his Bangladeshi father; desperately imploring his niece to learn Bengali rather than listen to Lady Gaga, he knows she does not feel the same pull to Bangladesh as he does. Miming a telephone call with a tech support center, Khan reaches an impasse when he discovers the person trying to troubleshoot his iPhone calendar malfunctions is a 12-year-old Bangladeshi boy.

By the end of the piece, Khan has yet to strike a balance between these conflicting influences, but the distress seems to have resided, giving way to the acquiescence of his destined duality. Though steeped in symbolism, DESH is not kitsch; rather, each of these symbols is rooted in Khan’s real-life experience grappling between East and West. Even in a 1,000-seat theater, DESH is a profoundly intimate divulgence of Khan’s deepest thoughts, and one of the most sincere dance pieces in recent memory.

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