By Savannah Peykani
A typical dance show will feature a group of people, usually called a company, performing various pieces of choreography with different songs for each piece and usually little to no speaking.
This is not always the case. Not if the show happens to be “Chotto Desh” by the Akram Khan Company which played at the Barclay Theatre last weekend.
Khan reimagines the typical conventions of dance performance by instead blending elements of dramatic stage play storytelling with his choreography, resulting in a magnetizing artistic experience.
Meaning “small homeland”, Chotto Desh recounts a phone conversation between a young man (played by Dennis Alamanos) in London, whose father is from Bangladesh, and a twelve-year-old customer service representative living in Bangladesh. The child reminds the man of his own childhood and his strained relationship with his father.
The audience never sees the Bangladeshi child; we only hear her voiceover. Similarly, the young man on the other end of the call never actually speaks; all of his dialogue, as well as his parents’ in flashback sequences, is piped through the sound system. He is the only human on stage for the 50-minute performance, doing all of the physical story-telling while the voice acting is done separately.
With only one dancer on stage, “Chotto Desh” filled the performance space with characters of light and sound. The voice over work echoed the omnipresence of familial pressure as well as commented on the state of communication in the digital age. (The entire premise of calling the customer service representative lay in the fact that his cell phone broke.) A plain, tan backdrop set the stark scene, which later blossomed into a mesmerizing depiction of a Bangladeshi folktale. As the tale came to a close, the backdrop returned to its tan uniformity and the final sequence of the show featured a rather comical dance between the young man and a giant white chair, similar to Robert Therrien’s “Oversized Furniture for Giants.” The chair symbolized his father’s overbearing demands, with the son resiliently climbing over them.
Early on in the piece, he breaks away from the phone call to take on the mentality of his father, drawing a face on his shining, shaved head and dancing sinisterly with his own face tilted down. Later, he remembered a story his grandmother told him about a trouble-making boy who didn’t listen to his father. Here, the stage filled with light blue animation as a projection of the surreal terrain of Bangladesh filled the stage. We eventually learn that as the son grew up and started taking dance more seriously, his father continually harassed him, telling him he needed to “be a man” and pick a more traditionally useful pursuit. Through it all, he continued to dance, attempting escape his father’s culturally stifling sphere of influence.
On our multi-cultural campus, many of us battle with the norms of our parents’ generation, but this innovative take on the relatable narrative also reminds us of how easy and accessible dancing can be.
Dance does not require expensive equipment or manipulation of some tool or mastery of a language in order to express emotion artfully. Dance is the human body moving to a rhythm or a feeling. It is democratic: anyone can dance.
Using dance as the cause of tension between a father and son proves ironic in the end. The father can’t stop him because all the son needs to dance is his own body. And that, the father can’t take away.
“Chotto Desh” brought to Irvine a new understanding of generational differences and the parameters by which we understand performance. But above all, it proved the impenetrability of dance.