‘Carrying’ Their Stories
Anglophone Bangladeshi Akram Khan’s Bahok, a modern dance production with eight dancers from as many countries
I remember once, during a several-hour transit wait, walking up and down the long anonymous concrete and glass halls of the main terminal at the Frankfurt airport. Since there was nothing else to do, I watched the people who were waiting in the empty concourse.
All I saw was the monotony and boredom of waiting. There was none of the eager bubbling anticipation of an arrivals hall despite the fact that they were waiting to go places I had never been but had always longed to see. Lines of people waiting for Barcelona and Belgrade, Kuala Lumpur and Ulan Bator, Rio de Janeiro and Nouakchott. What struck me most was the feeling that the world was dividing itself up into its different peoples, right there at the Frankfurt airport.
One line of passengers, though, was different: those people were of all colors, shapes and sizes. They were waiting for the flight to Atlanta. I have often thought back on that line: it has remained my metaphor for globalization and the cross-cultural environment that becomes ever more present around us.
Akram Khan’s Bahok, performed at the Festspielhaus St. Pölten on Nov. 13 and 14, opens with just this scene, a transit hall in an airport. Eight dancers from nearly as many countries – South Africa, Korea, Taiwan, India, Slovakia, Spain, China – are in a barren waiting room, furnished with only few more chairs than people, with a large information board above their heads. The kind you sometimes still see in train stations, with black cards that periodically flip around, like the sudden clamor of a flock of startled birds, to announce an arrival or a departure. It’s a sound that we have nearly forgotten now that LED boards have become the norm. But just like the waiting dancers, the noise makes us look up in expectation.
Bahok performed by the Akram Khan Company together with members of the National Ballet of China, is a tale of identity and the meaning of home. It had its world premiere in Beijing in January 2008 and has since been performed around the world. It is truly a phenomenon of globalized art.
Akram Khan was born in London in 1974 as the son of immigrants from Bangladesh. He grew up in a melting pot neighborhood, and like many there, he only became British at school. At home he lived in a small other world – Little Bangladesh so to speak. There he spoke Bengali, and at the insistence of his mother he studied Kathak, one of the eight forms of classical Indian dance.
The word “kathak” derives from Sanskrit “katha,” meaning story, and “kathaka” meaning story teller (the English word “quote” is etymologically related). This dance form can trace its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient India, who told tales of the Indian gods, morality stories, and myths. The abstract hand and arm gestures of Kathak as well as the facial expressions are clearly rooted in mime. The Kathak dancer wears bells on the ankles, and the audible footwork mimics the rhythms of speech, or becomes an instrument that blends with the accompanying tabla.
With its rhythmic idiom, Kathak has been compared to flamenco. Indeed, it is generally believed that the Romani people – the Spanish Gitanos – emigrated in the early Middle Ages from India, bringing art and dance forms with them. After seven or eight centuries, it is clear that the two dance styles would have diverged, but it is still possible to feel their common ancestry.
Akram Khan became a master Kathak dancer, giving his debut performance at the age of eighteen. Soon thereafter he began to study ballet, contemporary dance and contact theater, and began to synthesize these into his own personal style. Nine years ago he had the chance to work at Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s prestigious contemporary dance school in Brussels, where young choreographers are encouraged to develop their own vocabulary. He used the chance well.
In the intervening years he has become a superstar in the international dance world. His collaborations are eclectic in the best sense of the word. He worked with the London Sinfonietta to celebrate composer Steve Reich’s 70th birthday. He choreographed segments of Kylie Minogue’s comeback tour in 2005, and two years ago he worked with the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taipei. Currently he is on an international tour performing his latest piece with French actress Juliette Binoche.
His works display a remarkable versatility: He is choreographer, storyteller, musician, and international ambassador. Khan’s choreography speaks the language of people who jump back and forth between cultures: the nomad, the migrant, the expatriate, the wanderer, the uprooted. People who are creating a new world, the global, cross-cultural, integrated world we now live in.
In Bengali, “bahok” means carrier, someone who carries something. For a wanderer, when thinking of home or identity, this is often the only thing left – what they are carrying, be it in their hands or in their heart. As John Berger has expressed it, “For nomads, home is not an address, home is what they carry with them.”
But just living is also a journey. As Khan’s dramaturge Guy Cools writes, “We are all travelers. We are all voyagers. […] But we are also all carriers. We are all bahok. We carry with us our genetic and cultural inheritance, our experiences, our dreams and aspirations.”
In an interview in The Daily Telegraph in 2008, Khan described his choreographic process. When creating “Bahok,” he began by talking to the dancers, asking where home was.
“A lot of them pulled out their mobiles and said, ‘See these numbers? This machine is my home.’” He continued, “The dancers are the writers of the show. They are the ones who bring the source material. We search for the little stories that they bring with them and exploring these short stories of each individual, we find a bigger story. That is what fascinates me, to explore these personal stories of these individuals on stage, in order to discover and reveal a more universal one.”
In the transit hall, the eight figures casually relate their personal stories, often with a melancholic humor. In response to the question at customs control “What are you carrying?” one of the dancers replies, “My father’s shoes,” which she then takes out of her bag, putting them on like a small child pretending to be grown up, and slowly shuffles across the stage.
Helping a fellow traveler who speaks no English, one dancer repeats, “No, we are not married, we are friends. No, no, not married.” And the actual couples dance their relationships, sparring with one another in acrobatic capoeira, hamming it up with a classical ballet pas-de-deux, and in one particularly beautiful segment, performing a sensuous seated Indian dance consisting merely of tendril-like arm movements.
For Khan, home is his body. “It is the only thing I carry with me, the only thing I know that I am familiar with when I am in a different culture, or a different language.” His choreography explores the dichotomy of extreme speed and extreme stillness. The influence of Kathak can be seen in the arms, with their graceful, speech-like gestures. With tremendous, fluid movements, his dancers move like lightening, slither on the floor, jump through the air, flip and turn at a break-neck pace – and then they suddenly slouch in a chair, as if it had all been just a dream. When a single dancer moves, it seems like a virtuosic improvisation, but then when two, or even all eight, move in perfect synchronization at the same extreme speed, it is as if a miracle has taken place.
The board above the heads of the dancers suddenly begins to flip. “Are you lost?” “You seem lost.” “Where are you going?” “Is it in your papers?” “Call home, special rates.”
“Home.” And then a phone number. The country code is 36, Spain. “Mama?”
Indeed, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Home is where you start from.” A memory that some of us experience only in transit halls.