“Once upon a time, a little boy went against his father’s will…” So could be summarized the fairy tale proposed for half term by the Akram Khan Company and MOKO Dance at Sadler’s Wells. Chotto Desh, or ‘small homeland’ is an adaptation for children aged 7+ by Khan and Theatre–Rites director, Sue Buckmaster, of his 2011 hit Desh. Danced by Dennis Alamanos as Khan, it is an inspiring tale on one’s search for one's own identity and individual voice. Drawing on Khan’s own multicultural (British-Bangladeshi-Filipino) background and family history, the imaginatively potent Chotto Desh left children, adults (and stuffed animals) wide-eyed.

© Richard Haughton
© Richard Haughton

The story began in a deceivingly simple way: a grown Khan is unable to set his phone’s calendar and resorts to calling the manufacturer’s helpline for assistance. On the other end of the line answers a 12 years old Bangladeshi child. Khan’s astonishment and his own Bangladeshi roots trigger childhood memories of the busy and chaotic streets of his father's hometown populated by homeless beggars, policemen directing the traffic and angry dogs. This first wave of memories is followed by a second one, when the child-operator asks for Khan’s password to reset the phone’s calendar functions. In this second and longer digression the stage space becomes inhabited by Khan’s memories of his conflictual relation with his father and his mother’s mitigating role. A symbol of this is the fidgeting Kahn being asked by his father to sit still on a tiny chair. Unable to fit into his father’s vision he shows clear disinterest in taking over the family business, his father's proud achievement. Mediating between father and son is Khan’s mother, a warm understanding figure that tries to help her son find his own place in the world. Her advices take the form of a fairy tale, The Honey Hunter, that she narrates to her son. And suddenly, we are transported into a village near a forest where a child sets out on an adventure alone in the wild against his father’s will. The boy displeases the gods of the forest but, eventually, he repents. Khan’s password is the name of the goddess that rescues the boy: the Queen Bee. As the hero of the tale, the young Khan also goes against his father’s will by choosing dance as his own path, rather than following into his father’s steps (this always under the vigilant and benevolent eyes of his mother).

On music by Jocelyn Pook and structured in a narrative style akin to the Thousand and One Nights, Chotto Desh, is a labyrinth of narrative levels that yet display thematic parallels. At the centre is the quest for one’s identity, and the assertion of that identity – or autonomy within the context of family. It also suggests how to resist what is most obvious and listen to one’s personal call. But it is not only the structure that has an Asian influence; there are also hints to traditional shadow plays. Even if the set is minimal we are still transported into Khan’s vivid childhood memories. Pre-recorded voices deliver his father's disapproval and his mother’s tale so that they are with him in the space. On stage though we see only Khan. Alamanos is a potent interpreter; he is at once the adult and child Khan, but also the boy of the fairy tale narrated by Khan’s mother and Khan’s father. With his head bowed forward and three black signs on his clean shaved head he becomes a grumpy grown-up man talking to his son. A tiny chair helps to transpose the feeling of an adult suddenly remembering the past; and the extra-large version of the same chair the feeling of a child trying to fit into a world of adults. The story of The Honey Hunter is projected onto a screen in the form of a white cartoon against the black background. Alamanos is also an integrant part of the tale by first running after a cartoon child and then becoming the child himself. Also noteworthy is the fact that this performance was also v=conveyed via signed language, resulting in a beautiful duet between the dancer and the sign language interpreter.

MOKO dance is a national partnership made up of several major theatre houses. Its mission is to introduce children and their families to the power of dance. Alongside the beautifully inventive transposition Chotto Desh and the book of The Honey Hunter tale by Karthika Naïr and Joëlle Jolivet, MOKO also organizes different art and craft activities, and dancing workshops. These productions make for a beautiful introduction to dance for children – in fact, I overheard one child confess to his dad that he wants to become a dancer. But they can definitively also be enjoyed by adults. 

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