bahok, Sadler's Wells, London

Departure lounge dramas take flight
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The Independent Culture

Home, wrote John Berger, is not an address. It's what you carry with you. And this is the thread of thought that runs through bahok, the latest piece by Akram Khan, himself the product of a split heritage, British and Bengali. In a loose sense the search for home, for national identity in a shifting world, has been the presiding theme of all his work, not least zero degrees, the duet that continues to garner plaudits around the world. Bahok, though, is his most literal production to date – it even has characters and dialogue – and it's the first in which Khan himself does not appear. Instead, he has brought together eight strongly individual dancers who between them represent six nationalities; three are on loan from the National Ballet of China.

We meet them in a soulless departure lounge, where an overhead display board trickles out unhelpful information: "Delayed", and "Please wait", and just as often a torrent of alphabet soup. As the would-be travellers enter the limbo of stalled time, the board increasingly assumes the role of an oracle with the power to control outcomes, transform lives. We've all been in that departure lounge. We know how it feels.

And like all human beings suddenly stranded with nothing to do and nowhere to go, they slowly, albeit reluctantly, begin to communicate with each other. While their verbal stories brokenly express their feelings about family and friends, and the trials of international travel, Khan's choreography exposes their variously vulnerable and volatile emotional states. Shanell Winlock is given a rough time by security because she is carrying her father's shoes. She puts them on and dances a strange, interiorised shuffle, redolent of South Africa and pregnant with feeling for a distant life. Ballerina Meng Ningning giggles with her girlfriend and shows off in an increasingly vigorous classical variation, forcing the shorter, stockier Saju (a ringer for Akram Khan) to duck her flying arabesque. Eulalia Ayguade Farro, a lost soul whose neediness makes others take refuge in their mobile phones, hurls her body across space in bunched fury.

There is comedy too, spun out of mundane situations, nicely observed. There's the sleeping girl who repeatedly slumps against her neighbour, prompting a very funny duet in which Andrej Petrovic tries and fails to stabilise Wang Yitong's comatose form, using her own hand in an attempt to slap her awake. Two men fall into a violent scuffle over possession of an electronic game, only to be reasoned with by a man who speaks no English, then reluctantly subsumed in a ghastly group hug.

In short, people-watching has never been so engrossing, as casual gestures of boredom, frustration and alienation are worked up into vivid dance encounters. And what variety! Not just from the different traditions of the dancers (bendy, lanky Zhang Zhenxin is an athletic stand-out) but also from the contrasts of solo and group action. And it's these big unisons that bear Khan's personal stamp most distinctly, in great vortexes of swirling lines that seem to suck in elements of two continents: the visceral speed and agility of Kathak, the plasticity of contemporary dance. Nitin Sawhney's recorded music, too, ranges far and wide in its references, propulsive bhangra rhythms bumping up against plaintive Chinese melodies. It's an encounter we're bound to hear more of, one way or another.