Akram Khan is, as ever, utterly virtuosic in his movement, commanding the huge, empty stage of Sadler’s Wells with energy, humanity and beauty. However, his collaborators for DESH, with design by Tim Yip (who won an Oscar for the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and lighting by Michael Hulls, sometimes overshadow the dance. Khan’s fascination with his personal, often spiritual, journeys, and with telling a story or stories, also perhaps put more weight on the dance than it can carry. It’s better in this sense than Vertical Road, which I enjoyed less, and certainly manages to be more meaningful, but it still focuses too much on ephemera and not enough on the dance itself.
This is a shame, but the piece has moments of genius and is generally superb. There are not many artists who can keep an audience absorbed for an hour and 20 minutes alone on stage, and Khan really is stunning. The parts of DESH that don’t work, for me, are the ones where the other parts of the show take the limelight: Yip’s projections, designed to bring the forests and rivers of Bangladesh to Islington, are beautiful in their own right, and Khan interacts well with them. However, I can’t ignore the niggle that not only are the moving images not necessary to telling the story or to the piece as a whole, but that 1927 does them rather better.
Khan tells a number of stories in this piece, tied together by their common heritage or location: Bangladesh. He is a great storyteller, and uses his fluid body in amazing ways to portray different characters. As an old village cook, he crouches, face down, so that the comical face drawn on the top of his shaved head becomes the face of the cook. The audience loved it, and it was very funny while still remaining poignant. As both a version of himself and his father, in conversation, Khan is moving and intelligent. His imagined conversations with a small child are witty and the dance that comes out of these chats is clever.
However, with each of these strands, Khan perhaps slips into self-indulgence. Each idea is clever and well-executed, but he lingers for too long on each one. A neat sequence where he mimics dodging traffic by leaping over moving rectangles of light is brilliantly done, but Khan lets it continue for minutes which means it quickly loses its wit and verve. In the same way, although Jocelyn Pook’s haunting, soaring score is mostly beautiful, perhaps each section lasts too long, stretching Khan’s ideas a little too thin. His work is reminiscent of Rupert Goold in this way – Khan seems to take every idea he or a collaborator has and throw it at his work, and then keep everything that sticks. This makes for some amazing spectacles but also for some weaker ideas that could have been dropped – thus making the show tighter.
The add-ons are well done, but I can’t help wishing that Khan would dispense with the theatrics and focus more on the dancing. Because when Khan takes the stage, you could watch him all day.
DESH is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 8th October.