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Akram Khan’s Chotto Desh review at EICC, Edinburgh – ‘energetic’

Dennis Alamanos in Chotto Desh. Photo: Richard Haughton Dennis Alamanos in Chotto Desh. Photo: Richard Haughton
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Sinuously winding its way into Akram Khan’s childhood, Chotto Desh proves to be clever programming by the Edinburgh International Festival. Here is a bona fide great piece of dance, clearly within the expectations of its dance audience with resonances that go deep beneath its surface moves – yet as a piece of dance for children and their families it allows the festival to explicitly programme for that audience.

Based on Khan’s autobiographical solo work Desh, meaning ‘homeland’ in Bengali, Chotto Desh (chotto means ‘small’) is an adaptation by Sue Buckmaster that uses the folk tales of his childhood to explore Khan’s troubled relationship with his father.

The storytelling is clear and energetic. Dennis Alamanos as adult Khan (he alternates with Nicolas Ricchini) can’t unlock his mobile phone. Discovering that tech-support is a 12-year-old in Bangladesh leads first to memories of his childhood holidays there and his father, then, prompted to remember his password, the superheroes of his grandmother’s stories.

Although the mobile phone story is not as clearly a framing device as it might be for the youngest audience members, the separate sequences are realised with a real fire and energy as Alamanos moves into the different memories.

There’s a buffeting and sense of danger as he wanders the crowded streets of Bangladesh, so different from London where he was born. It sets the tone, and the whole is a journey with its own dangers in which he can’t ever relax and sit still.

The creation of Khan’s father provides the greatest element of invention. Drawing a bold cartoon face on the top of his shaved head, Alamanos tips it towards the audience, cradling it on his arms to create the man, small in stature, who fed the whole of his village. It’s a disconcerting trick, which demands strength and flexibility from the performer and succeeds in creating a cartoon version of a domineering father, as seen through a child’s eyes.

Giant animations bring a folk fable to life. Interacting with line drawings of forest animals projected onto the backcloth, Alamanos tells of a child who goes searching for honey when it is forbidden and draws down the wrath of the gods. The link between the god’s anger, tempered by the spirit of the forest, and Khan’s father’s attitude to his dancing, tempered by his mother, is made clear.

Fun and spontaneity are sprinkled across the show – young Khan’s refusal to sit on a child’s chair is a laugh-out-loud highlight. But all the while, and the final illustration of Khan’s choreographic development, there is acknowledgment of the deeper element at work, in the complex bonds between father and son.

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Akram Khan's dance piece for youngsters has satisfying depths for an older audience