Heavy rain and winds did little to deter people headed for the National Theater on either Friday or Saturday night to see Akram Khan’s one-man show Desh. They were rewarded for their determination with an engrossing performance that is Khan’s most political to date, but also one filled with beautiful imagery and with a storyline that — despite its focus on Bangladesh (Khan said “Desh” is Bengali for land, country, homeland) and his “family” — could speak to everyone.
Desh is very much a piece of dance theater, with plenty of text — a nod to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, whom Khan cites as one of his three main inspirations (British theater director Peter Brooks and Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) are the others). It is also a concession to his age — 37 when he created Desh two years ago — and as he told a post-show Q&A on Saturday night (which drew well over 200 people to the National Theater’s central lobby), “when you are over 35 you rely more on emotional energy than physical energy.”
It is a one-man show, but filled with characters that Khan converses with or becomes: a construction worker, a beggar, a call center worker and his niece. Most of all, however, the work is about his father, who for storytelling purposes is dead at the start of the show (in reality, Khan senior is alive and well and has seen the show several times). And with the exception of a few seconds here and there, Khan is on stage the entire 80 minutes of the show.
Desh opens in near darkness, with Khan entering the stage carrying a lantern, little more than a black silhouette against a green-gray backdrop. Then the stage goes black, except for the lantern’s light. A loud bang is heard, then another, and as the light comes up, Khan, clad in a grey shirt and black dhoti pants, is wielding a sledgehammer, pounding a small concrete mound (his father’s grave) at the front of the stage, from which a scrawny plant stands defiant. The sound of the blows reverberates through the theater, until a defeated Khan lowers the sledgehammer, having failed to break through. The pounding sound is then picked up by a percussive soundtrack, while vigorous arm movements, timed to the beats, propel Khan around the stage.
Attempting to break through and failing is the leitmotif of the show, which is about Khan trying to make connections: to tech support for his smartphone while traveling in Bangladesh, to his “father’s” tales of being a village cook (with the mantra “I am just a simple man”), to his niece retelling a folktale and as a London-born and raised son (and Michael Jackson/Bruce Lee fan) to an immigrant father. No matter how hard Khan tries to forge a connection, the environment, or time, conspire against him — much like Bangladesh’s endless battles against the ravages of the annual monsoons.
The segment where Khan plays/dances his father, head bowed over to reveal the features of a face in black greasepaint on his shaven pate, is terrific. However, while Khan is a good actor, he remains a mesmerizing dancer at 39. His kathak training has given his fingers, hands and arms a fluidity that purely “modern” dancers lack. Ballerinas looking for tips on dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake could learn a thing or two from Khan about undulating arms.
Seeing the show a second time was interesting because it became apparent how repeats of seemingly random moves — like lifting one foot to look at the sole — later prove to be crucial elements in a storyline (such as a harrowing account of torture during Bangladesh’s war of independence).