Some twenty minutes into the opening night performance of DESH, the Olivier-award winning solo choreographed and performed by Akram Khan, I feel baffled. Presented here as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, my ambivalence is caused by my mind’s measuring up this evening’s show with my still-vivid memory of Khan’s soaring Vertical Road, presented at this same venue almost exactly a year ago.

Desh © Stephanie Berger
Desh
© Stephanie Berger

Not that I think a choreographer/director should be judged for stepping out of his/her usual range, but as the evening unfolds, I am wondering if this show was actually intended for children. Not so, according to the promotional materials, which position DESH as being Khan’s most intensely personal work to date, and one dealing with an apparently complicated relationship with his Bangladeshi heritage (the title refers to the Bengali word meaning “homeland”). Make no mistake – Khan is a wonderfully agile, charismatic performer, with a quicksilver physicality that is beautiful to watch. That is, beautiful to watch, within reason – if motivated with a compelling narrative or even non-linear but powerfully evocative dramaturgical structure, as was the case with his Vertical Road. Again, that is not the case with DESH – using a great deal of textual narration, the production unfolds at a remarkably even pace, with clunky segments – they could actually be called “scenes” – most of which, in my book, overstay their welcome.

In DESH, Khan portrays an array of characters – such as a young boy (presumably his childhood self), a young girl by the name of Eshita, an old man (a representation of his father), and so on, and he negotiates this with a certain degree of charm, but the cuteness goes on for a bit too long, each statement becomes overstated, and soon a dragging pace settles in, making the work feel more cumbersome than joyful. Khan resorts to simple means to tell these stories – which is a tactic that can be powerful (a performance by Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker which I viewed just recently comes to mind as a shining example of “less is more”), but in this case reads as poor. Just to mention a few examples: Khan’s first transformation is into an older man, which he achieves by simply drawing two eyes and a mouth with some black stage make-up on the crown of his shaved head. He uses his witty physicality; by pointing the top of his head towards the audience as a mask and speaking with a heavy accent, he draws some laughs from the audience, but as the scene wears on (too long, in my estimation), his make-up melts under sweat, the illusion is broken, and a scene that could otherwise have been amusing for a while, becomes neither meaningful nor entertaining. Next, Khan resorts to an extended (and equally cringe-worthy) act of pantomime, where he engages in some playful rough-and-tumble and dialogue with an invisible girl, circa six years old. While the girl’s lines are delivered in voice-over, Khan lip-syncs his dialogue (inducing even more cringing), covering everything from the bees, folk tales, a classmate who wants to kiss her, and… Lady Gaga. Somehow, Khan just doesn’t know when to stop – perhaps because he is too eagerly involved in conjuring up his fictional characters on stage to have that directorial perspective on the work he is creating – and as the scene exceeds the ten-minute mark, it becomes so unbearably saccharine that, I admit, I reach for my iPhone wondering how much of this is left to sit through.

Unfortunately, this is the case throughout this disappointing display from an otherwise talented choreographer and performer. As if lacking confidence in what he could deliver in a context that is ostensibly more theatre than dance, Khan uses almost every trick in the theatrical playbook: pantomime, puppetry, shadows, video animations, object theatre, martial arts, and so forth, ironically clouding up meaning rather than illuminating. In my case, Khan’s personal connection to the subject matter of homeland, heritage and identity, or a sense of belonging – which was supposed to be the strongest impetus for this work – becomes all too ephemeral in the midst of the cuteness and the pastiche.

Ironically, I felt that the work’s most (and, possibly, only) redeeming scene came in its final moments, when an entire forest of thin blades of silk magically descended from the rafters in the midst of which Khan vanished, only to reappear as the blades partially rise off the floor to reveal Khan hanging head-first, suspended from his waist down. This is the kind of “storytelling” that Khan is empirically much more well-versed in, and it shows. The entire scene unfolds in silence, and, without a single line of text, speaks volumes about the condition of displacement and the loss of identity experienced by a child of immigrant parents, whose disconnected heritage remains a kind of a ghost. Sometimes an image, as a wise man once said, is worth a thousand words.