Moving meditations on time and place

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - Page 12

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).

The score by Jocelyn Pook is beautiful, ranging from the sounds of Bangladeshi streets and construction sites to hymns and chanting, providing both the action needed for Khan to react as a man buffeted by a modern city and the calm needed for the more meditative interludes.

Tim Yip’s (葉錦添) set pieces and illustrations were even more beautiful than the video clips I had seen hinted at. His drawings for the tale of the bee goddess and the little boy who climbs the tree to get to the honey in the hive were magical (thanks to the digital animation done by Yeast Culture), but the piece de resistance was the curtains of ribbons, the colors changing from white to teal blue as the lighting shifted over the next few scenes.

At first Khan spun through them or pulled at them to create a ripple effect. Then the three tiers of ribbons were raised a few feet and he was hanging upside down underneath, twirling. Finally the entire installation was lowered to the floor, leaving Khan trapped mid-waist among the girders, lights and ribbons, until he crawled out from underneath. As the ribbons start rising again, Khan attacks the mound once more, digging feverishly until he unearths a kurta (long-sleeved shirt). Donning the kurta, he returns to the rattletrap fan contraption seen earlier in the show, which turns into a wind tunnel — and the final image of Khan (now his father?), battling against nature and time, struggling to hold on.

Desh is a work that stays in the viewer’s mind; there is so much to digest both story wise and in the dances. The scene where father and son are arguing is one that hits home no matter who you are.

However, it turns out that particular storyline was a last minute addition. During the Q&A, Khan said the central character of the show was originally his mother. His producer, Farooq Chaudhry, had early on suggested that it was really about Khan’s father, a suggestion Khan said he angrily rejected. Two to three weeks before the show’s September 2011 premiere, Ruth Little, the dramaturg, told him the show just was not clicking, and suggested that perhaps it was really more about his father than his mother. Khan finally agreed, which meant large portions of the show had to be reworked. It must have been a herculean effort to make the changes, but they certainly paid off.

Unreal Time

Earlier in the month, I caught the Sunday matinee of Dance Forum Taipei’s (舞蹈空間) show, The Unreality of Time (時境) at the Taipei City Shuiyuan (Wellspring) Theater.

Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell and New York composer/cellist Chris Lancaster worked together for seven weeks on the piece and the seamless integration of music and dance made the piece a joy to watch. There was one segment of music especially that was so beautiful, so uplifting, that it made me want to get out of my seat and dance.

Lancaster’s playing obviously inspired the dancers and vice versa, with company founder Ping Heng (平珩) saying after the show that during rehearsals, even when Mascarell told the dancers not to go all out, they told her they couldn’t help but do so because of the music.

He used a bow, he plucked his amplified cello like a upright bass, he played the lower half like a pair of bongos and used foot pedals to create playbacks or draw out notes — one segment even sounded like a recording of a whale’s song — all the while keeping a close watch on the dancers, feeding off their energy and giving out energy in return.

The audience entered the theater with the cast of three women and two men — Su Kuan-ying (蘇冠穎), Kan Han-hsing (甘翰馨), Chang Chih-chieh (張智傑), Chiu Yu-hsuan (邱昱瑄) and Chen Wei-yun (陳韋云) — already on the floor. They moved, in a series of sprints and stops around a flat golden square laid out on the floor that turned out to be yellow lentils, in what looked to be a combination of musical chairs, a game of “Simon Says” and cause and effect. One dancer would set off a chain reaction that was echoed by the others, although a second or two later.

Once the audience was seated (the show was sold out), the piece formally began by Lancaster taking his seat at the back of the stage and the dancers began to repeatedly fall on top of the lentils, swirling the pulses around with their feet and hands as they get up each time, then wiggling back and forth across the floor, propelled just by their shoulders and feet, until the lentils were spread out across the stage.

Mascarell crafted a combination of solos, duets and ensemble segments, centered on the idea of a reaction having to travel through time from the initiating movement — one woman slaps another’s face, but it is the third woman across the stage who reacts, or one dancer begins a line of movement with a leg that is completed by another dancer’s contraction of an arm. The movements are often circular, possibly like time itself.

The piece closes with four dancers repeatedly picking up handfuls of lentils to toss in the air — moving through a shower of golden light — while the fifth makes “snow angels” on the floor.

The Unreality of Time is a deceptively simple piece, the layers of complexity camouflaged by the overlaying visual and aural beauty.

The company will be taking the show to Seoul and then Shanghai next month, but hopefully they will be able to perform it in Taiwan again sometime.