Once you discover that Bahok means "carrier" in Bengali, Akram Khan's captivating new work becomes infused with symbolism. Set in a soulless departure lounge, a globalised transit zone, Bahok, which opened in Beijing in January, draws on the real and imagined life-stories of its eight participants.
Five of Khan's regular company members and three dancers from the National Ballet of China, with its strict discipline in classical ballet, make up this group whose countries of origin span Korea, India, Slovakia, Spain, South Africa and China itself. They apparently share little common background and, as the piece sometimes wittily, sometimes movingly, demonstrates, they are not familiar with each others' spoken languages.
In their roles as travellers caught up in airport limbo, they quickly develop a dramatic vocabulary to communicate – or not – as they await their respective exit routes. But to where? Destination unknown.
It's the first time that Khan has choreographed a show in which he does not himself appear, and it seems likely to set a precedent. Neither he nor, indeed, his audience need worry, however, when his chosen dancers convey so much of his distinctive mercurial movement, whimsy and wisdom.
The subject matter of Bahok could scarcely be more appropriate for a show which, after its UK launch at Liverpool's Leap 08 Festival as part of the city's European Capital of Culture programme, will tour the world. One can only hope that the dancers' extensive travel plans will not be as chaotically disrupted as those of their characters, their onward journeys blighted by messages that flash across the onstage departures board: "Please wait", "Rescheduled", "Delayed" and, more enigmatic, "Water", "Earth" and "Phone home".
Exploring many of the ways in which the human body "carries" national identity and in which gestures and expressions can convey a sense of belonging or, equally, disorientation, Khan has created a piece in which body language speaks louder than the words that punctuate the fabric of Bahok. The scope for international incidents among these frustrated travellers is immense as each dancer searches for his or her home – however that is interpreted, or wherever it might be. Loosely structured around people sharing the same anonymous space but little else, Bahok has atmosphere, humour, poetry and heart, and is beautifully lit by Fabiana Piccioli.
People-watching has never been so gripping as it is, right from the beginning, in Bahok. From different corners of the stage, tiny gestures of boredom, alienation, aggression and neediness develop into a seamless series of brilliant short scenarios, eloquent encounters. Solos and small-scale episodes are contrasted with vivid sweeps of unison movement as, with impeccable precision, the whole company twists, turns and whirls as one before splintering away again.
We recognise these individuals: the desperate-looking young woman (Eulalia Ayguade Farro) who makes incoherent efforts to make contact with anyone, clutching the papers that might reveal a clue to her past, and the bullish young men whose tempers become frayed over an electronic game console.
Then there's the dozer whose head drops irritatingly on her neighbour's shoulder, before her sleep-infused body wraps itself around her helpless victim. His attempts to shake her off develop into a breathtaking duet by Andrej Petrovic and Wang Yitong. Giving up on her valiant attempts to enable uncomprehending officials to communicate with a Korean visitor, Shanell Winlock retreats into a world of her own, dancing in, and with, her father's shoes.
Cultural baggage takes on a new meaning in this context, as does the fragility of human relationships.
Nitin Sawhney's pulsating, pre-recorded score is perfectly matched to the needle-sharp textures and muted colours of Khan's detailed choreography, which this ensemble interprets with astonishing fluidity and facility, quite blowing you away.
Touring to 14 June; www.akramkhancompany.netReuse content