Dance Review: Akram Khan Company's first Southern California stop
Change the “M” in “home” to a “P” and you’ve got “hope.” That simple but effective bit of word play was flashed two times, for emphasis, on the electronic departure sign that served as a setting in Akram Khan Company’s latest dance piece, “Bahok.”
This was no idle musing. Home and hope were indeed intertwined in “Bahok” (2008), a sentimental but not maudlin piece that unreeled in a taut 75 minutes at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Tuesday. (The company performs next in San Diego and Santa Barbara.)
How do heritage and the vestiges of home, which humans carry inside themselves forever, both separate and unite humanity? Some of Khan’s exploration trod familiar ground, but the choreographer’s singular way with movement made the journey worth taking again.
“Bahok” means “carrier” in Bengali, and the 35-year-old Khan is himself a “carrier” of several cultures and dance traditions. A master Kathak dancer born and raised in London of Bangladeshi heritage, Khan is a leader in melding Asian and contemporary Western dance. His pieces are remarkable for the fluidity of his movement and the stunning abandon of the performers. The biggest disappointment of this piece was that Khan did not cast himself in it.
The eight dancers in “Bahok” are stuck in an anonymous waiting room, killing time until the next train or airplane takes them somewhere else. Bored and initially suspicious of one another, they slumped on black chairs, springing to life when the letters on the departure board whirled; clicking sounds recalling the signs of another era. The would-be passengers were greeted with frustrating messages -- “Please wait” and “Delayed.”
It was a clever setting (set design by Fabiana Piccioli, Sander Loonen and Khan), sure to evoke empathy and sympathy from any audience. A station is a crossroads of the world. It’s both familiar and alienating. No one belongs and everything is strange.
Khan’s performers didn’t have to feign differences because they hail from around the globe -- South Africa, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, Slovakia and India. Khan created “Bahok” in collaboration with three dancers from the National Ballet of China. They were not able to take part in this tour, however, because of performance commitments at home. Two women and a man from Taiwan and South Korea took over the parts with minimal changes to the choreography being made.
Eventually, the travelers turned their attention to one another, and misunderstandings as well as comedy ensued. Eulalia Ayguade Farro, a petite powerhouse with lightning reflexes and speed, nervously crumpled papers and pushed her way where she wasn’t wanted. Shanell Winlock tried unsuccessfully to explain to an imaginary and uncomprehending government official about the travel plans of her South Korean friend, Young-Jin Kim. Language barriers rendered him invisible. Sung-Hoon Kim snapped photographs of the balletic Cheng-Fang Wu; Saju, who goes by one name, was drafted to partner Wu, despite being a good head shorter. The departure board flashed now with explanatory subtitles.
Pushing and shoving gave way to a group hug, with Farro mounting the huddle. Glorious pure dance passages, performed to a recorded score by film and orchestral composer Nitin Sawhney, punctuated these simple vignettes.
The dancing contained the veins of gold. Khan’s movement style is a complex layering of cross-cultural technique and rhythm, with the dancers’ upper and lower bodies seemingly at cross purposes, but gorgeously so. Khan’s five regular dancers, especially, performed on a precipice of violently swinging arms, thumping footsteps and acrobatic danger. In solo turns, they displayed their unique personal style; Saju’s attack recalled martial arts; Kim’s jerky gestures were hip-hop-influenced.
Khan’s message was optimistic, suggesting that hope and home contain the roots of compatibility, and that it does not have to be the source of patriotic discord. Naive? Perhaps. But “Bahok” was crafted with such superior quality, it made one believe that anything is possible.
-- Laura Bleiberg
“Bahok," Akram Khan Company. 8 p.m. Friday; Mandeville Auditorium, UC San Diego. Tickets $28-$38; $10 UCSD students, www.artpwr.com. 8 p.m. Tuesday; Campbell Hall, UC Santa Barbara. Tickets $42; $19 UCSB students, www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.
File photos of the Akram Khan Company, above, and Saju in "Bahok." Credit: Liu Yang.