When the Georgia Straight reaches Akram Khan, he’s ordering a cappuccino in a New York City coffee shop, and the barista can’t quite get his name right.
“Con?” she asks. “C-o-n?”
“No, it’s the English Khan,” the famed choreographer responds politely. “K-h-a-n.”
The exchange is instructive, not least because it signifies that in the 21st century Khan is just as much an English surname as, say, Smith. But it’s also an indicator that we shouldn’t see Chotto Desh, the Khan-created solo that soon gets its Vancouver premiere, as necessarily an immigrant’s story.
Yes, the 44-year-old Khan is the son of two people who left war-torn Bangladesh for the relative calm of the United Kingdom. And, yes, projected drawings of elephants and crocodiles and lush tropical vegetation help establish its storybook character. But the experiences it’s built on and the values it projects are common to us all, Khan stresses.
“To be honest with you, for me everyone is an immigrant,” he explains. “Everyone has come from somewhere else. Canadians are not really originally Canadians, you know. Indians are not originally Indians. Apparently, we all came from Africa. Origin is a very funny thing, but what I do know is that if you look at time in a longer sense, we all come from somewhere else.”
Key to both Chotto Desh and the work it grew out of—Desh, a solo for Khan himself—is that they’re centred around the composer’s own quest to find his place in the world. (In Bengali, desh means “homeland”, while chotto means “little”.) And so while both pieces touch on his cultural heritage, they also work toward universality.
Part of that involves the 44-year-old Khan’s embrace of cultural and artistic hybridity. He grew up as a “curry-shop kid” in a flat above his father’s restaurant, but this took place in polyglot London. And while his parents encouraged him to study kathak, a South Indian classical dance form, he spent just as much time reading manga and watching movies—especially the classic works of Charlie Chaplin and Bruce Lee. There’s a direct connection between Chaplin’s silent films and kathak, he says: both are all about the story. And from Lee he absorbed a quasi-spiritual lesson about the nature of existence. The late martial-arts master held that “we are like water, rather than solid—because water can change its shape depending on which container it was in,” Khan explains. “That’s something that Bruce Lee spoke about in interviews, and that had a huge influence on how I look at movement. I definitely don’t have anything pure about me.”
This flexibility came in useful when Khan and director Sue Buckmaster set about adapting Desh for a younger audience. Retaining the “search for identity” that Khan says is at the core of the earlier work, the two made Chotto Desh almost half an hour shorter than the original, and adapted it for others to perform. Lost might be some of Khan’s signature physicality, expressed through stark, solo excursions away from the core narrative, but he doesn’t mind.
“Sometimes Desh went into the realm of poetic abstraction; we suspended the narrative in certain moments, which we did not do for Chotto Desh,” he says. “Every single moment is connected to the narrative, whereas in Desh there were moments where it was about the dancing, the purity of the dance.
“Children are so engaged with narrative, visual narrative and musical narrative, that when it becomes abstract it doesn’t work,” he adds. “It might work for a few that really love dance, but we wanted to do it for all children.”
And for anyone who’s ever been a kid, too.
DanceHouse, SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, Théâtre la Seizième, and the Akram Khan Company present Chotto Desh at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Wednesday to next Saturday (November 21 to 24).