One of the easier criticisms levelled at contemporary dance is that it's not "about anything".
But that's never been true of the dance of Akram Khan. Blessed and equally burdened with a dual heritage – an urban British life and rural Bangladeshi ancestry – this gifted mover and maker has almost always included some autobiographical element in his work. This he has never done more potently than in his first-ever full-length solo Desh, exploring his complex feelings about his parents’ homeland, a country formed 40 years ago and now threatened with obliteration by rising sea levels.
Calling it a solo suggests small-scale. Yet this 80-minute staging is epic in its imaginative daring and gorgeous theatrical effects, taking the audience on a pilgrimage of its own, dodging traffic on manic city streets, climbing trees in search of honey, joining the protesting mob during the Liberation War of 1971, and experiencing the life-giving, life-taking battering of the monsoon.
What could all too easily have been an incoherent sprawl is kept on track by Khan’s singular stage presence. He switches so naturally between spoken delivery and sequences of cyclone-force movement that the two seem to merge in a silver stream of meaning, making you forget it’s not usual for dancers to talk (thank God, because most of them are useless at it).
Moving through scenes offering increasingly sophisticated visuals, Khan is simultaneously himself – a 37-year-old man born in suburban Wimbledon – and various characters in his story. He becomes his father by painting a face and beard on his own bald pate and performs bent over – to both comic and disturbing effect, exaggerating his father’s poverty and homuncular smallness, and mimicking his Bengali accent. (You wondered how the real and now rather dignified Mr Khan took this, sitting in the stalls on first night).
While there’s still some tightening to do on the technical front (a few effects only half-worked at Tuesday’s premiere), there are sequences which achieve the highest visual poetry. The moment when Khan’s story-telling Mowgli character emerges above a picture-book forest canopy disturbing clouds of birds and surveying an ocean of rustling leaves (animation by Yeast Culture, gloriously lit by Michael Hulls), we’re magically up there too, heart in mouth.
Jocelyn Pook’s score, with its moody strings and scrunched vocal harmony, fuels the fluctuating moods, rising to a daunting cacophony in the Liberation scene where Khan, jostled by cartoon-animation protesters, fights conflicting sensations of jubilation and fear. It also sustains a sense of bliss in the final, ecstatic drench of the monsoon, when Khan, telling a story about a man whose feet were flayed as wartime torture, finds solace in a downpour of silk ribbons – an installation (by designer Tim Yip) worthy of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
In any other week events at the Barbican would have made top billing, launching Dance Umbrella with a final visit from the late Merce Cunningham's company, due to be wound up at the end of its current world tour.
Inevitably, this knowledge gave an elegiac tang to the opening bill, yet the works had been carefully chosen to counter it, reminding audiences (and it surprised me, too) of the perkier aspects of the grand master of dance modernism. Back in 1958, the man who was later to strip human motion of all extraneous flourishes, habits and hampering gestures, strip it down to pure form, in other words, had a wicked sense of humour. Antic Meet is a gloriously dotty dig at over-seriousness (perhaps with Martha Graham in mind), complete with a man who wrestles a three-sleeved sweater, and a girl who sweetly mimes gathering hazelnuts, then spitefully flicks them at another girl's head.
The company may have reached a natural end, but the work – thanks to an archive recently set up in New York – has a way to go.
Jenny Gilbert gets competitive in the immersive Edinburgh Fringe hit Dance Marathon
CandoCo – the first dance company to prove that the disabled "can do" too - marks its 20th anniversary with three bold commissions. They include a reworking of Set and Reset, a seminal work by American modernist Trisha Brown, and new work by Rachid Ouramdane and Matthias Sperling. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Fri & Sat; touring next month.Reuse content