Chotto Desh  – Sadler’s Wells, London

Writers: Karthika Nair, Sue Buckmaster, Akram Khan

Composer: Jocelyn Pook

Choreographer: Akram Khan

Director: Sue Buckmaster

Reviewer: David Guest

Mime, dance, animation and storytelling combine for a charming piece of theatre for children which will also resonate with adults. Akram Khan’s Chotto Desh does exactly what it says on the label: it is a shortened, family-friendly version of his fiercely autobiographical work Desh, Bengali for ‘homeland’ – chotto in the same language means ‘small.’

Adapted by Sue Buckmaster of Theatre-Rites the production explores the solo character’s sense of identity, his true home, and his relationship with his parents in a way that is bewitching and rich with meaning. Even though played out on a stark grey set, there is plenty of colour and compelling content.

The framing device is the London-born dancer’s need to unlock his mobile phone; he calls tech-support, which turns out to be a 12-year-old at a Bangladesh call centre, and this, in turn, releases memories of his “homeland” which he recalls having spent holidays there, and which take him into the vivid fables he was told, especially a story about a young boy who steals honey in a forest and incurs the wrath of a tiger demon.

There is some extraordinary and beautiful animation, provided by Tim Yip and Yeast Culture, which allows the dancer to enter the storybook world of the folk tales he heard in childhood years. A simple, but highly effective, device puts the performer onto the pages and he interacts with characters and scenery, including a crocodile, butterflies, an elephant, a forest and the all-important beehive from which he steals honey.

Deceptively the innocent illustrations are also used later as a more adult protest against war; there are distinct similarities in one tableau to the unidentified Tank Man, who stood his ground against the military in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The whole is an artistic jewel that questions one’s roots and encourages the audience to reflect on their own stories and influences.

The piece is performed by Dennis Alamanos with amazing physicality and an alluring cheekiness. He manages to portray the busyness of a Bangladesh street (a world apart from his English birthplace), the frustrations of a young would-be dancer in a home with a strict father, and one caught between the spiritual depths of ancestral home and the harsher reality of actuality.

Early on in the piece, which runs for just under an hour, Alamanos draws a face on the top of his bald head and performs looking downwards, a contrivance allowing him to present his father. He is brilliantly at one with the animations, skilfully recreating moments as his mind flutters from dreamlike nostalgia to uncomfortable memories.

The choreography is never less than powerful and evocative, sometimes bold and expressive, at other times responding to the constraints of disapproval. When it needs to be other-worldly it has fluidity and a feeling of liberation.

With its clear underlying testament to the power of storytelling and daring to use the imagination, Chotto Desh will surely encourage young audiences to develop their own sense of creativity and broaden horizons.  It is a work of magical simplicity that works at many levels without ever losing sight of the human story it is telling.

Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Richard Haughton

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