DESH, Akram Khan’s solo work currently reprised at Sadler’s Wells, opens with the sound of water. And although that is almost immediately followed by a clanging metallic percussion as the dancer hits a mound of sand with a sledgehammer, the metaphor holds firmly for the work. Not least of all because Khan’s dancing – dominated by swirling and twisting turns – is nothing if not fluid. His movement, like the story it tells, flows. It’s as if the man were boneless, or rather as if his muscles lacked boundaries, so easy are their transitions from moment to moment, place to place.

Akram Khan in <i>DESH</i> © Richard Haughton
Akram Khan in DESH
© Richard Haughton

The 80-minute performance, which premiered in 2011, is narrative, like the kathak dance Khan was trained in as a child. Composed of a series of stories, and scripted in collaboration with French-Indian author Karthika Nair, the overall theme is a generational one. For in the dance’s stories Khan moves between his father and his niece, each demanding attention and an explanation, which can only be answered in the form of a story.

As Khan is London-born the stories are about the world that more clearly belonged to his father. A world of monsoons and honey, demons and exotic creatures. How Khan moves from the industrial clangings of London and urban Bangladesh into the mythical world of his imaginary homeland provides the dynamism and fascination of DESH. A myriad of theatrical techniques are applied along with his dance to demarcate stages of these various theatrical tellings. Michael Hulls designed the excellent lighting. And Jocelyn Pook composed the sounds and music.

There is the symbolic grave of his father, where a scraggly plant struggles to survive. And an industrial contraption with a wavering internal light that Khan talks into and that talks back with all the defiant glitches of modern day technology. There is the reworking of his body to become his father, a humble cook. In this comic characterization Khan tilts his head forward revealing the face that is drawn on the top of his bald head. By shifting his head from side to side he gives the illusion of an oddly shaped head rolling like a ball from forearm to forearm.

Then there is his disembodied niece, who appears only as a voice but with which he enacts in a series of compellingly mimed moments. He walks hand in hand with her invisible presence, conversing with and answering her impudent questions.

And in one exquisitely beautiful and moving sequence, Khan interacts with a changing graphic animation that is projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage. This transforming and transformative section of DESH begins with Khan tying his niece’s shoelaces. The shoelace turns into a light blue line that grows in width and length. Rising to and falling from the top of the scrim, the line winds into the image of a rowboat. Curling waves appear. Khan falls into the boat and sails away into a world of large leafy trees and fluttering hoards of butterflies. Birds zoom past. Leaving the boat Khan confronts a crocodile, pulling a real fish from its gaping maw. An elephant appears out of the greenery, curious and benign. Finally, Khan escapes the forest by climbing an enormous tree. The design moves downwards on the scrim creating the illusion of Khan climbing higher and higher until he reaches the canopy of the forest. There he finds an enormous snake and a beehive full of honey. Ecstasy!

The sequence is fantastical, innocent and full of wonder, a tour-de-force by visual designer Tim Yip, and animated by Yeast Culture. The drawings are simple, childlike and stylized, but that is the source of their beauty and their power. It is no wonder that DESH was adapted into a children’s version, Chotto (or Little) DESH.

Yip was also instrumental in the penultimate sequence, in which strips of silky cloth cascade down from the lighting grid, creating a pale golden waterfall through which Khan moves as if in a trance. At one point he hangs upside down between these lines of fluttering color, twisting in a slow aerial dance. Eventually the grid and its ribbons descend, leaving Khan in their midst, standing like a wader in the midst of a wide and tumultuous river – symbol of his love for his father and the depth of his feelings for the homeland that exists in his imagination. The homeland of all our imaginations, infinitely desirable and infinitely distant.