Choreographing the rediscovery of family roots in Bangladesh

Akram Khan's acclaimed autobiographical dance work has been stylishly reworked as a piece to appeal to children and families, says Kelly Apter

Chotto Desh is no longer specifically about Akram Khans visit to his fathers homeland  in Sue Buckmasters new production at the EICC. Picture: Contributed
Chotto Desh is no longer specifically about Akram Khans visit to his fathers homeland in Sue Buckmasters new production at the EICC. Picture: Contributed

Growing up in south-west London, Akram Khan would often hear his father talk about “home”. Not the house in Wimbledon where Khan would play his Michael Jackson records and dream of becoming a dancer – but his father’s original homeland of Bangladesh.

As a child he travelled to this unknown land, the source of all his father’s stories, and soaked up the busyness and cultural differences. Then as a man, having gone against his father’s wishes by pursuing a career in dance, he created a show to capture it all.

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First staged in 2011, DESH is one of Khan’s finest works. Translated from Bengali as “homeland”, the autobiographical solo switches between Bangladesh and Britain, exploring Khan’s experience of both, and his relationship with his father.

It also features a memorable scene where he interacts with colourful animation, depicting a myth about a young boy searching for honey in the forest. And it was this scene which sparked the idea that DESH might have potential as a work for families.

Four years later, Chotto Desh (“small homeland”) was born – but not before an awful lot of hard work was put in by theatre director Sue Buckmaster and her team.

“I watched DESH a number of times and asked Akram why he did things in certain ways,” explains Buckmaster. “Because it was important for me to understand where the original had come from, and why some things were communicated visually and others through choreography. And then I started to think about which bits young people would be more drawn to, and what they would be disengaged with.”

Buckmaster then brought in a group of children from a local school near her base in east London, who not only reinforced her thoughts on what would interest them, but fed into the creative process.

“I asked the kids about tensions between them and their family,” she says. “And it was interesting to hear their statements about what they argue about. We also asked if any of them had a parent from a different country, which many of them did, so it was really relevant to them. And it was important to find out if they considered the arts a valid career choice, and many of them said no.”

The children were surprised to learn that Buckmaster and her team, and Khan himself of course, were all earning a living through the arts. But although the strife between Khan and his father centred largely on that topic (his desire for his son to get a “proper job”), Buckmaster knew that parent/child conflict is commonplace.

Likewise, the subject of cultural identity for Khan was very specifically about Bangladesh. With new dancers Dennis Alamanos and Nicolas Ricchini taking over the role in Chotto Desh, however, the work needed to become less specific.

“Denis is a Greek-Filipino and Nicolas is a mash-up of Russian, Spanish, French and Filipino, and I said let’s use that,” says Buckmaster.

“So the character of Akram became more universal. It was still the struggle of becoming a dancer and of cultural identity, but we widened that reference a bit more, which gave the dancers a chance to use some of their own experiences.”

Two other major changes Buckmaster felt DESH needed were timeline and age-range. In DESH, Khan plays himself as a young boy, a teenager and an adult finding his way in the world – not necessarily in a linear order, something Buckmaster worried would confuse young audiences.

“We needed the children to be able to relate to it,” she says. “So I wanted it to just be about his childhood experiences, all pre-16, and we cut anything that happened when he was older than that.

“And DESH jumps around so much, that we needed more of a thread. It’s something I call taking the hand of the audience, even if it’s just to say we’re going in this direction now. Whereas with adults you just do it, and say ‘Keep up!’”

Structure and narrative aside, choreography is a hugely important part of the show. Khan is acclaimed the world over for his unique blend of contemporary dance and Indian Kathak, so Buckmaster was loath to lose much of his original movement – yet mindful that two other dancers had to inhabit the part.

“We broke down all the choreography and processed it emotionally, so that Denis and Nicolas weren’t just learning it technically,” she explains. “So now there’s not a single gesture or movement they do, that they haven’t located emotionally.

“Because I think without that, anyone watching – adults or children – will think that person is just doing that because they’ve learnt it, and they won’t feel anything. And of course Akram feels everything in every move he creates, and that’s what were trying to imitate, so the dancers had to find that inside themselves.”

• Chotto Desh is at the EICC, 13 and 14 August, 2pm and 7pm