Does anyone remember the hit TV series Quantum Leap? In each episode, the dashing Scott Bakula would find himself teleported into someone else’s body, in some other time and some other place, and just when you figured who he was and what was going on he’d be catapulted into a new body and a new episode, which you then just had to watch. It was great.
DESH, a solo by dancer/choreographer Akram Khan, is a little like Quantum Leap: a series of jump-cuts which see Khan body-hopping between different character and times. But unlike the world’s-your-oyster TV series, DESH is tied to just two locations: London, where Khan was born, and Bangladesh, his parents’ homeland. Khan’s own shape-shifting body – morphing from cook to folktale character to father to freedom fighter to his own teenage self – runs like an elusive thread through the piece, meshing personal tales with the larger, more impersonal forces of history and myth.
The scenes are multiple and mutable. Khan paints a face on the top of his head and becomes a puppet-like old man, rolling his round head along his arms as dextrously as if it were a basketball. Then, to the sound of throttles and honks, the empty stage becomes a snarl of traffic: strips of light scooting, swerving and stopping all over the floor, Khan skipping and dodging them in a crazed hopscotch. A tumultuous crowd of marching figures (video animations by digital media company Yeast Culture) thrusts Khan to the front of the stage with shouts of defiance like the voice of popular protest. He becomes a torture victim, scrabbling crab-like so that the flayed soles of his feet don’t touch the ground; a boy in a story searching for honey in the forest; a sullen teenager who reckons Michael Jackson is really really bad and also the long-suffering father whom he swears at.
All this makes DESH sound frenetic, but actually the pacing is unhurried. And with Khan as the sole performer, the piece never feels crammed. Still, with such loosely connected imagery, DESH could easily have unravelled into a shapeless tangle. That it holds together – and spellbinds its audience – is down to two factors. First there are Khan’s classy collaborators: poet Karthika Nair, with whom Khan devised the scenarios, lighting designer Michael Hulls and, most obviously, composer Jocelyn Pook, whose finely textured score is emotive but never maudlin, and designer Tim Yip, whose animation of a lush, hushed jungle transports us to a realm of wonder and enchantment, and whose grandly simple visions – two white chairs, one life-sized and one gigantic; a dense descent of streamers which fills the entire proscenium – overwhelm us with sheer beauty.
The other factor, of course, is the dance. Khan has a commanding gravitas as a performer, and is a highly distinctive dancer, simultaneously grounded and fleet. The format of the evening also plays to Khan’s core strengths: portraiture, performance quality (as an actor as well as a dancer), his ability to cast a spell. The piece also plays away from his weaknesses: group composition and the sustained development of choreographic structures are not Khan’s forte, and DESH neither includes them nor needs them.
The word desh makes us think of Bangladesh, but its connotations – homeland, territory, habitat – also invite other interpretations. In dance terms, certainly, DESH feels very connected to Khan’s home ground: kathak. Not that it’s a kathak piece; rather, kathak’s mode of presentation – solo episodes in which the performer freely 'becomes' different characters and evokes the presence of others through gesture, mime and address – is abundantly present in DESH. It's as if Khan has taken a quantum leap into his own past and returned with a stronger sense of where he belongs – not as British or Bangladeshi or Londoni, but as a dancer.