With Novel Hall under threat of being closed and demolished, every performance there is taking on added poignancy. So it is fitting that Briton Akram Khan, who has contributed so much to the Novel Hall dance series since his first appearance in Taipei under its auspices in 2002, should be bringing his acclaimed solo show DESH as the second and final work in this year’s series, even if the show is being held at the National Theater, not Novel Hall.
Khan was last seen in Taipei almost a year ago, when he joined forces with Taiwanese dancer extraordinaire Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜) to perform Gnosis as part of her “Timeless” show at the National Theater. Their performances were even more memorable than when he first performed Gnosis at Novel Hall in May 2010 with Japanese Taiko drummer Yoshie Sunahata.
Khan arrived in Taipei yesterday with a schedule filled with meetings with press, rehearsals and an audition for dancers for his London-based company. Elaine Huang (黃麗宇), Novel Hall’s public relations manager, said more than 80 dancers had eagerly signed up for today’s audition.
However, dancers and non-dancers alike have been eagerly awaiting DESH since it was first announced that Khan would be bringing it to Taipei. The 2011 work is probably Khan’s most personal to date, with critics in London and elsewhere declaring it his masterpiece.
The 39-year-old London-born Khan, who originally trained in Kathak, a form of Indian dance that combines dance and storytelling, went on to study ballet, contemporary dance and physical theater at university. His creations, whether focused on classical Kathak, or productions like Gnosis and Bahok, and whether solo, duet, or ensemble, have maintained that storytelling center.
Khan as a dancer is a joy to watch in whatever form he is working, especially when he spins — even when he is moving so slow that one can count the finger twitches or toe taps. However, when he moves fast, he can be just a blur that is more than the human eye can readily take in. If possible, his mind moves even faster, with the quicksilver jumps of thought that make conversations with him so interesting. His mind games, whether physical or verbal, are a key element of his magic.
Making sense of the past
DESH, which means “homeland” in Bengali, is about Khan’s attempt to make sense of Bangladesh, his parent’s homeland, his own identity (Briton/Bengali/Bangladeshi/Indian/Moslem) and his relationship with his father. He has mined this territory before, most notably in the brilliant and moving Zero Degrees with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (seen at Novel Hall in 2007), which was based on a trip Khan made to Bangladesh with a cousin.
This time the tableaux tell the stories of Bangladesh itself — its creation, its endless struggles with tidal surges and monsoons and its people — as well as favorite folktales and the struggles of Khan’s father’s life. Khan may be the only performer, but he is not the only character on stage — there is Khan as a child, a little girl, his father and a Bangladeshi everyman.
While DESH is a virtuoso solo, its production was a collaborative effort. Khan worked with some of his frequent partners, including poet Karthika Nair, who helped write the stories that Khan tells, composer Jocelyn Pook, lighting designer Michael Hulls and costume supervisor Kimie Nakano.
Oscar and BAFTA-winning artist and designer Tim Yip (葉錦添) joined the team to create the set, illustrations and staging, dreaming up everything from a 3m tall white chair to an fantastical forest brought to life through animation, where a pair of shoelaces can transform themselves into a boat, a friendly elephant and a giant tree that Khan climbs as well as a monsoon storm and a tank. Then there is satiny sculptural installation of silk ribbons that fill the stage — representing rain, the ocean, the air — in which Khan swings upside down, fluidity in motion and adrift in space.
The piece was created after a year of research both in Britain and in Bangladesh, and its premiere in 2011 was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. Khan and his creative team made an eight-day trip to Bangladesh together in November 2010, visiting Dhaka and Khulna, to help them conjure the sights, sounds and stories of the country.
The show runs 80 minutes, with no intermission. After Saturday night’s performance there will be a question-and-answer session with Khan.
While the top tickets, at NT$3,000, are pricier than most of the Novel Dance series productions, though not for the National, this is one show that is not to be missed. The word that most frequently crops up in reviews and descriptions of the piece is magical. If you only see one more dance show this year, make it DESH.
And while Novel Hall’s future may be in doubt, here’s hoping that Khan will be back in Taipei soon with his latest creation, the ensemble piece iTMOi (in the mind of Igor), an examination of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which premiered in May in Grenoble, France.
This story has been corrected since it was first published to reflect the move of the show to the National Theater.