The acclaimed dancer and choreographer Akram Khan has joined forces with Theatre-Rites director Sue Buckmaster, who produces shows for young people, to reimagine his worldwide hit Desh as his first-ever work for children and families.
Chotto Desh, or small homeland, tracks a young man’s dreams from Britain to Bangladesh, using Khan’s unique ability to tell powerful cross-cultural stories combining dance, text, visuals and sound.
Khan spoke to Eastern Eye about the show, how he got started in dance and why it is important for children to feel comfortable in their bodies.
You started dancing at the age of seven. What drew you to the art form at such a young age?
Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first time I saw theatre – it was a story, there was dance and there was music. It was my first discovery – up until then, my mother said only Indian classical forms were the ones that imbibed all three. So Michael Jackson was a big inspiration for me.
What inspired you to want to create a piece for children?
I wanted to do something for children but I didn’t want to create it myself, because I don’t have the experience. When I spoke to several people including Sue, there was constant connection to this being very dreamlike, it’s very fantastical and there are things that could connect with children.
In 2011 when I made the work [Desh], I wasn’t yet a father but I was thinking about children. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be beautiful to have a children’s version?’ But it needs a very specific set of talent and craft. Sue was the first one that came to mind as someone I completely trust to use Desh as an inspiration.
Desh is the caterpillar. What Sue did so incredibly was literally strip away and let the shell exist where it is and it became a butterfly. It had to transform because it is an adaptation, but it is a new piece. My parents were more excited about Chotto Desh than Desh, because there’s something new to discover from a different perspective.
So did Desh bring you closer to your father?
To a certain extent yes, and to a certain extent no. I called my father and said, ‘Dad, at the beginning of the show you are dead and I am going to your grave, but it’s quite abstract. Some people will get it, some people probably won’t.’ He was quite distraught. He said, ‘you’ve killed me before the show has even begun, so where am I in this piece?’ My mum was jumping around – I could hear her on the phone (saying), ‘oh, he’s dead, he’s dead.’ He was a little nervous, then he saw the show and realised it is actually all about him in relation to me.
Dad was the first one to stand up [at the end of the show] which was very embarrassing, because he wears a white cap and he stood up before people started to applaud. He started clapping and I saw him and thought, ‘oh god!’ He said, ‘that’s about me,’ so my mum, you could hear her pull him down, scowling and just looking (like), ‘please don’t make a scene’.
My mum was a little bit upset because it was so personal. The teenage scene she lived through, she knew the tension and she tried to protect me. Then listening to other people, she realised there was a bigger purpose than (it being) just about us and it’s touching people in other ways.
My father is a villain in Desh, he found that difficult and my mum was offended a little bit.
Did you have your daughter in mind when it came to creating a piece for children?
Yes, and I also had Sue in mind because I was inspired by what she had done. There’s a real psychological, intellectual and emotional rigour that one would put in a show for adults or children. She treats it differently but the rigour is the same. I thought of my child coming to see it, she’s only two and-a-half, but I would love to sneak her in somehow. It’s a gift from her to me.
You recently called on the government to put dance in the curriculum. Why is this so important?
I want children to feel comfortable with their bodies. I didn’t have a voice until I was 12. I was a silent boy because I was speaking English at school but I was slow at learning because my mother refused to speak to me in English and I learnt Bengali at home. For the first four years I spoke only Bengali so my English was slow and there was a confidence issue with my identity and how I felt.
Then I won a disco competition with a Michael Jackson routine and I realised that people were listening to me but I wasn’t talking through my mouth, I was talking through my body.
I had a stutter when I was a kid. It is so important to express yourself through your body for all kids because the first thing they learn is sound, not gesture. They imitate. So when I dance around like an idiot with my child, she starts dancing and she gets this confidence. It’s developing a sense of dialogue other than a spoken language. It’s crucial for children to have both. Dance is a tool to express yourself and to communicate with others.
Would you like your daughter to become a dancer?
It’s funny how you become a little bit like your father when you’ve got a family. I would love her to be a doctor.
Are there now more Asians in the arts than when you started your career?
As actors, no. In Hollywood, London, all over the world, there are no scripts written for actors who are not white unless they are terrorist roles. Friends of mine who are actors struggle waiting for the next terrorist role to play.
Somehow dance is not about your colour, it’s about, are you interesting? There are fewer barriers in dance than film.
Would you like to see more Bangladeshi children entering the creative industries?
I would love to see more children (in general). Bangladeshi children I empathise with a little bit more, I know what the culture is like. It depends what part of Bangladesh they are from, but some of them are very religious. Throughout my childhood, people in my community would ask, ‘what are you going to do? What career are you going into? You come to my son’s wedding, you come and dance.’ They didn’t see it as a viable career choice, so this is what they are facing each day.
What is next for you?
Until The Lions, which is a feminist piece based on the Mahabharata. There is one female character and it reflects the relationship within society with women in India and the traumatic stuff that’s happening, but I’m using the Mahabharata as an inspiration.
The other is Giselle, a new interpretation of the iconic ballet. We have finally decided to base it on migration.
Finally, is there a change in the audiences coming to see your shows?
The young generation, for sure. For my parents’ generation, it’s a little too late, they would rather see Bollywood. It’s beautiful because you see Bangladeshis of my age coming up to me after a show saying, ‘I saw Desh so I thought I would see Torobaka’. They say I’m a visual artist, there are people doing lots of creative stuff, it’s really nice.
Bangladeshis would never go to Sadlers (Wells), it’s too frightening for them. It’s like the Royal Ballet, it’s serious and it’s a different society. But I hope with Chotto Desh they come with their children to see Sue’s show, because they have a reason to come.
The premiere of Chotto Desh takes place on Friday (23) at DanceEast, Ipswich. For further dates in October, November and December, go to www.akramkhan company.net