If art’s purpose is to ask the relevant questions, then British-Bangladeshi dancer Akram Khan successfully interrogates humanity — and himself — with his latest production, “Desh.” The production will be staged at the Saitama Arts Theater on Jan. 26 and 27.
Khan, 38, first came to this country as a young prodigy more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve been to Japan many times since I was 14, when I performed in Peter Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata,’ ” he tells The Japan Times. “I fell in love with Japan then, and have always been fascinated by the arts of Japan — butoh, noh — but then many people are.”
Showered with praise from critics across Europe since its U.K. premiere in September 2011, Khan’s 2012 was a busy year. “Desh” won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new dance production and Khan choreographed — and performed in — a prominent section of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony.
Khan now returns to Japan as one of the top names in contemporary dance. He frequently combines his early training in classical Indian dance, kathak, with contemporary moves to create his trademark, original choreography. And now, he has a more personal link to the country.
“The other reason I feel connected to Japan is that my wife is Japanese,” he says. “Her family is from Kyushu, and we hope to spend time in Japan for our future children, to educate them at some point in Japan.”
“Desh” asks its audience to question aspects of everyday life, culture, and personal identity: How does water flow inside its earthly confines? How does tradition survive within the torrential flow of modernization? How do cultures converge and define the identities of multicultural nationals, immigrants and outsiders?
The word “desh” is Bengali for “homeland,” and the piece entwines multiple tales set in Bangladesh and Britain. It presents the quest for understanding and reconciliation toward personal origins, a journey easily recognizable by people everywhere. As the only dancer on stage, Khan alternately portrays Bangladesh’s history and England’s modernity by transforming into an elderly village cook, translating dialogue between a cheeky London teen and his traditional father, and transmitting Bangladeshi myths to a younger generation.
Dance enthusiasts in Japan don’t need much education on Khan’s career; however, even those unfamiliar with his work should recognize the names of his past collaborators, who include French actress Juliette Binoche, Australian pop star Kylie Minogue and British sculptor Antony Gormley. In fact before “Desh,” much of Khan’s 13-year career has consisted of crafting works for others or his own company.
He approached his first full-length contemporary solo piece with some trepidation, admitting it was “a bit terrifying.” It was the chance to become multiple characters that charged his creativity. “I’ve always been fascinated by one person playing with characters who in reality are not there on stage, existing only in imagination,” he says. “Imagination is a powerful tool for both the audience and the performer. It can be far more magical than actually having a real entity on stage. I felt comfortable, working with characters, because I felt suddenly I was not alone, even though there was not a real person there.”
Though alone on stage, Khan makes a point of crediting his production team. Those people include visual-design artist Tim Yip, lighting designer Michael Hulls, writer and poet Karthika Nair and composer Jocelyn Pook.
“We spent 10 days in Bangladesh with all the collaborators,” answers Khan when questioned about the background to “Desh.” “It was very important to us that everyone should get a true sense of Bangladesh, not from my words or otherwise secondhand, but actually directly through their own experiences. The thing we walked away with, when we went back to England, was the power of children in Bangladesh. In the children lies the hope for all the people.”
There is a sense of childlike discovery in “Desh,” however Khan has explored his own multicultural background before on stage. Born to Bangladeshi parents in London, Khan began dancing at 3 years old. At the age of 7 he studied kathak under Indian master Sri Pratap Pawar. His personal bio has been well-known to dance fans for a decade — how as a child Khan was torn between pop-sensation Michael Jackson and the nomadic bards of northern India, between Wimbledon outside and the stories inside his father’s kitchen at their family-run Indian restaurant. Khan later studied contemporary dance at De Montfort University and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leicester and Leeds respectively. Khan also explored his multicultural experiences onstage in “Sacred Monsters,” a duet with French ballerina Sylvie Guillem that toured Japan in 2009.
Since establishing his own company in 2000, Khan seems most interested in challenging himself: “It excites me when I find myself in a place artistically where I don’t know where I am because to discover yourself, you have to be in a place in the middle of nowhere. When you put yourself in challenging situations, you confirm who you are.”
“Desh” is Khan’s most complete challenge to date. It reworks the boundaries of self and imagination, and Khan admits: “It’s exhausting, emotionally, physically and mentally, but it’s also very rewarding. After a performance, I feel like I’ve been through my entire life. There is a dialogue happening between you and yourself which is your present self and your past self and your future self and you are also reacting to your past self who has performed the day before, and your present self, trying to perform slightly differently in the now. But on another level, I am also playing myself as a young teenager.”
Khan describes the added creative pressure and reward of being the only performer on stage: “There’s something about the responsibility of a solo that is different from sharing the stage. You know you are the trigger of the show, and once you start triggering events, it becomes a conversation and the piece begins triggering you.”
Triggers. Flow. Form. Breaking through the barriers; receding back to the source. Khan elucidates in the program notes to “Desh” a “fascination with water inside the Earth. It is the core principle of the way I think and move, fluidity within form.” Although Bangladesh and Japan are quite dissimilar geographically, both nations share respect and reverence for water. As Khan points out, “In Japan, water can bring sudden, unexpected tragedy, but in Bangladesh, they’ve adapted so much to the intrusion of water, it’s almost become a season — summer, winter, autumn, spring and flood. Water is a necessity but a danger on so many levels.” Khan cites the “increasingly disposable” world, where climate scientists predict Bangladesh may be one of the first countries to “disappear under rising waters.” “Desh” thus ultimately becomes a way to forge something lasting, a bulwark of creativity until time’s flow redirects the artist or reshapes the world.
“Dance is a spontaneity that reflects our inner and outer lives,” Khan says, “and ‘Desh’ is very much about that for me.”
The Akram Khan Company presents “Desh” on Jan. 26 (4 p.m. start) and Jan. 27 (3 p.m.) at the Saitama Arts Theater’s Main Theater. Tickets cost ¥3,500-¥5,000 (¥2,500 for students) For more information, visit www.akramkhancompany.net or www.saf.or.jp.