bahok, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

Dancers wait in an airport lounge. Overhead, a display board flips through strings of random letters, ending in unwelcome messages: delay, please wait.

The dancers fidget or talk, encountering strangers and immigration officials. Sometimes they break into dance steps. More often, they keep talking.

bahok is a collaboration between the choreographer Akram Khan and the National Ballet of China – that company's first new work with a Western contemporary choreographer. It makes for a multi-cultural ensemble. Three from China join five from Khan's company, whose nationalities include Korean, South African, Indian, Slovakian.

Khan has long been interested in questions of identity, which are built into this piece. The title comes from a Bengali word meaning "carrier": the dancers carry memories, as well as dance training, in their bodies.

Eulalia Ayguade Farro is a desperate woman, clutching crumpled pieces of paper, accosting other dancers – apparently seeking help, actually wanting them to listen to her stories. All she remembers about home is the way it rained.

Shanell Winlock tries to interpret for Kim Young Jin, who speaks little English and finds it hard to get a word in edgeways. When at last he does speak, the departure board provides a translation – but is anybody on stage paying attention?

bahok is a very talky piece – and self-conscious. When Farro rushes through her long, frantic speeches, you can see that the others don't have time for her character, embarrassed by her demands and her emotions. You can't miss the point, but it lacks spontaneity. Neither her plight, nor the listeners' responses, really bite.

It's better once they start to move. When Saju partners the National Ballet of China's Meng Ningning, their styles clash and mesh. He moves in to lift her, but ducks away, with martial arts defensiveness, from her high-kicking legs.

Nitin Sawhney's atmospheric music slips between styles, Indian melodies rubbing up against Chinese percussion or thumping beats. Fabiana Piccioli's beautiful lighting warms or chills the different incidents.

Towards the end, the cast come together for an ensemble number. As arms whirl and pump, they suggest an aeroplane: engines turning, or arms outstretched like wings in a child's game. It's in the movement that bahok comes closest to takeoff.