Yesterday evening I attended Akram Khan Company’s Chotto Desh at Leicester’s Curve Theatre, and interviewed rehearsal director Amy Butler and dancer Nicolas Ricchini. Meaning “Small Homeland”, I was truly excited to get an insight as to how this adaptation would live up artistically to its highly regarded predecessor Desh.
JW: As they expand and increase their number of national and international tours, there is a tendency for audiences to feel that companies churn out dance works just to increase profit. How do you feel that this work in its own right really contributes to our contemporaneous dance sector, as we know it today?
AB: I was talking about this earlier actually, about how family theatre is beginning to grow and become more popular and attract more big names. I think that having someone like Akram Khan produce a piece of really good quality family theatre is just brilliant because it means that they’re putting value on family theatre, and our young audiences are what we want to nurture. This piece is great because it appeals to that difficult age group band from 7 all the way up to teenagers.
JW: That’s significant as well now considering that schools are trying to abolish dance from the academic curriculum.
JW: And as Chotto Desh is an adaptation of the Desh original, how has the work been adapted specifically for the dancers who don’t share the same experiences as Khan?
NR: We really worked on the choreographic material of Desh, but afterwards we reworked everything with a new dramaturgy with the help of Sue Buckmaster (director from Theatre Rites) and she really put all her energy into a whole new dramaturgy so that it is suitable for young audiences. In Desh there are a lot of political things that adults can identify with and it would have been very difficult for children to understand. And also it’s a bit shorter, it’s about 53 – 55 minutes long.
JW: Considering that it premiered only two months ago, have you had audience responses so far?
AB: Yeah, we’ve had amazing responses. The dancers, both Nico and Dennis (Dennis Alamanos) have very different shows the way they perform, so they definitely have ownership over the material. And there’s a solo at the end, which is totally different for each of them. Sue and Jose (Khan’s assistant choreographer Jose Adugo) allowed them to develop it in a way that gave them permission to perform it and have real ownership of it.
NR: We really had the freedom to explore with our bodies and our own language because if you want to earn the show you really have to make it yours.
JW: That sounds like a really special investment in the dancers, rather than teaching them the work and then that’s it.
AB: Desh is so complex and Akram has such a unique history and dance that is almost impossible to recapture exactly what he did. And then also it wouldn’t have been suitable for family theatres anyway. And kids are the first people to say “Oh he’s not confident when he does that!” they just know.
JW: So speaking of dancers, Akram made a statement earlier this year regarding British dancers and it appeared to shake the dance industry. What does the company look for when hiring dancers?
AB: It’s very difficult to say what the company looks for because both of us are only employed for this project. I know that companies in general are obviously looking for outstanding dancers who can learn and acquire information quickly. Akram looks for intelligent dancers because his work is so complex and has so much detail and layers. He works at a very high speed, he is a very intelligent man and I think he expects that of his dancers as well. I don’t think it necessarily matters where you’ve trained, especially now that that statement has been thrown out there. A lot of it is to do with the audition.
JW: Akram started here in Leicester at what is now De Montfort University, and now his works are being performed on big stages such as London’s Sadler’s Wells. How does the company ensure that there is a continuous engagement with the rest of the nation’s audiences?
NR: With this show we have special workshops for young audiences because it gets them into the show. We have also done classes at NSCD. It is really interesting to be sharing with them and we had a great time because they really wanted to learn about the work and the company.
JW: So it’s evident that there is still a real interest in dance despite funding and support being reduced.
AB: Yes, exactly. And there are other things on the tour that we do. Sarah from Moko, because Moko commissioned the work, does all the wrap-around stuff which is basically arts and crafts events before and after the weekend performances. It gets the kids involved and it’s really beautiful, and the adults love it too.
JW: What do they learn about?
AB: They introduce elements of the cultures. For example, they can do henna. In the piece we see Akram dream of being a dancer so there is a wishing tree, there is also an opportunity to draw a picture about where you are from.
From my chat with Amy and Nico, it is really very apparent that Khan’s Chotto Desh is not just a rework of his more political original but is a real investment in the nurturing of young audiences.
With its vivid animations and larger-than-life props, it is evident that Chotto Desh not only strives to excite the child’s imagination but also encourages the adults to use theirs. I am eager to see how other grand-scale dance companies follow suit and incorporate family theatre into their programmes.