China, Khan, Babel and ‘Bahok’

On February 9, a wild mix of contemporary, classical, and world dancers took over the Irvine Barclay Theatre, re-enacting the fable of The Tower of Babel. This was  “bahok” – which means “carrier” in Bengalese – a collaboration between Akrham Khan’s kathak choreography and the National Ballet of China.

By the first dance, it was evident that the show was going to be good. By the second, it was obvious the show was going to be spectacular. And it was. For a full hour-and-a-half, the dancers of “bahok” captivated the audience with the story of an unlikely group of people who are lost in translation.

Akrham Khan’s “bahok” presents not just a collaboration between Khan and the National Ballet of China, but a collaboration of dancers all across the world. “bahok” uses dance styles as diverse as those from Korea, South Africa, India, Bengal, Slovakia, Spain and Taiwan. With this far-reaching sampling of international cultures, it is fitting that the story Khan weaves through the dancers is one of unconnected individuals stuck in a limbo, bound by language barriers.

The narrative is set in a waiting room, presumably at an airport or train station since it is plagued by a sign signaling delays and cancellations. The dancers, desperate to go home, try to pass the time by interacting with each other; as they do so, they also become involved with each of their personal belongings – props that bring insight to the dancers’ personalities.

However, due to the different ethnicities and languages of the dancers, they soon find that interacting is not as easy as it seems.

What’s truly remarkable about this dance show is that Khan is able to elicit an array of emotions from seemingly simple movements. At one point, one of the dancers is asked a number of questions by the airport personnel; when the questions turned to her father’s dancing shoes, there was an evident feeling of nostalgia.  The scene builds to the woman dancing in her father’s shoes with such vigor and emotion that the audience can feel the connection the dancer has with the shoes, despite their being mere objects. One can see the memories that the woman associates with the shoes, and how deeply the security guards have hurt her .

The whole show followed this emotional path: a Korean man is interrogated about his travels; a woman desperately tries to fit in with conversations of God and religion; a fight erupts between two men who do not speak the same language; a man talks to his overprotective mother on the phone.

As great as these little moments are, the most marvelous moment in the entire piece is when all the dancers overcome their barriers and converge into one unified, synchronized group.

While each dance piece in the show is beautiful and powerful in its own respect, the second piece stands out above the rest. In this portion, a woman falls asleep on the man sitting next to her. As he struggles with her to keep her off of him, they begin to wrestle into rather comedic (and admittedly provocative) positions. Eventually, the man gives in — and the two dancers’ bodies turn into one body, that of the Hindu goddess Shiva.

”Shiva” moves so elegantly across the stage, with such ease and such gracefulness, it is easy to forget that the dancers are not one entity. Throughout the entire piece, one can only imagine the other audience members, on the edge of their seats with their mouths gaping in amazement. The concept, the choreography and especially the execution are nothing short of spectacular.

Between Khan’s international prominence and the high acclaim of The National Ballet of China, there was quite a bit of hype over “bahok.” Usually, such high expectations are capable of making a “small” performance like this fall flat. However, “bahok” did not fail to meet any expectations – rather, it rose above and beyond.
Khan’s story of cultural identity in the modern world was not only captivating but exhilarating as well. If you ever get a chance to see this show in the future, it is well worth checking it out.