IDENTITY CRISIS: When Two (or more) Worlds Collide with Akram Khan & Basma Alsharif

When Worlds Collide How Do You Return Back to Home?

Last Friday I experienced Akram Khan’s DESH at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Akram is one of Britain’s most exciting contemporary dancers / choreographers and like so many people in the 21st Century he is attempting to perform a balancing act between two (or more) worlds. There is the England of his own biography peppered with the history of the Bangladesh his parents left when they came from Dhaka to Wimbledon where Akram was born.

Once caught mimicking Michael Jackson dance moves, Akram (who also credits being inspired by the moves of Bruce Lee, Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin) was immediately put into Kathak classes – his parents attempt to keep him rhythmically attuned to the sub-continent rather than the beat of American pop culture.

Eventually though the mash-up masala that London was produced this phenomenon of a performer who brilliantly synthesizes Occident and Orient into the most moving experiences for his audiences. Akram has also worked with other Brits who have built their careers around the psychological space created by cultural hybridity – writer Hanif Kureishi (Sammie & Rosie Get Laid, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia), internationally renowned artist Sir Anish Kapoor, and musician-composer-producer Nitin Sawhney who has worked with musical ‘fusion-aries’ like Natacha Atlas, Cheb Mami, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and most recently produced the score for Canadian director Deepha Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – a poignant narrative on the agony and the ecstasy of hovering between many states of being.

“Contemporary dance can have more ambiguity which means it can also have many more stories”

DESH (which means homeland in Bangla) starts in a pre-Partition place then moves forward and backward through memories around the birth of modern day Bangladesh and the genesis of the dancer’s career in Great Britain.

When asked after his NAC performance if DESH is based on the biography of his and his father’s lives Akram replies “it was personal, but not so much to be about me but to be universal.” Akram and his team went to Bangladesh to gather stories they could link to his own and from that experience arose DESH. He went on to say that in contemporary dance there is more ambiguity in the delivery so the interpretation is able to hit closer to home for more people regardless of whether the audience has a historical connection to the story.

The miracle of multiplicity.

A day after viewing DESH I found myself at DOPPELGANGING: A Master Class held at Galerie SAW Gallery and facilitated by Kuwati-born Palestianian-American media artist Basma Alsharif. Basma’s Master Class was based on her struggles as an artist and human being to come to terms with her own shifting identity(s). She relates that when in America she would put on her American identity like a cloak. On the family’s yearly visits back to Palestine she would switch her psychological attire. She would flip flop back and forth with desire for the place she wasn’t physically in “living two lives separated from each other but existing at the same time.” She says she began to “perform” her identities “either defending an identity or denying it” and always trying to find a way to solidify all of herself(s).


The Story of Milk and Honey  قصة حليب و عسل

“I decided to explore the psychology of endless travel, isolation and escapism…I discovered a letter without an envelope or address”

The question she put to us –  is there a way to take this bifurcation of our beings and turn it into a position of strength?

I would argue that many already have.

At a time when we have a multiplicity of narratives these voices did not descend into dissonance, rather they have become a well articulated melody that many hear.

The ability of artists to translate the universality of experience is what helps us remember how to listen to each others words and respect our shared humanity.

We all understand a desire for home, for sovereignty of state, for peace of mind.

Cultural provocateurs, like Akram and Basma, offer us a road map to recover the treasure of deep empathy and a way back to “home”.

GIMME ONE RIDDIM: Ska & The Soundtrack to Jamaica’s Freedom

Poster with image of a black couple from the 60s dancing

Ska – Jamaica’s new freedom soundtrack having recently gained independence from the United Kingdom.

“It is the year 1963. The heat of the island is soaring through the rooftops and rising from the dancing bodies at the Sounds Systems street party in Kingston, Jamaica.  The new sound and love of music in this island, resides in the heart and soul of ‘ska.’ A unique musical blend of rhythmic African music and New Orleans jazz, this sweet, new and popular sound pumps through the speakers and resonates through the island becoming Jamaica’s new freedom soundtrack having recently gained independence from the United Kingdom after 300 years. This is it; a new sound, a new musical revolution, a new meaning, a new life, a new creation of history influencing the island and the world forever.”(cited from Gimme One Riddim website)

Gimme One Riddim is the newest work by Toronto talent Jasmyn Fyffe. Jasmyn, along with Natasha Powell, co-produced and choreographed this play

Gimme One Riddim runs March 13 – 15
Winchester Street Theatre
80 Winchester Street
Toronto, ON M4X 1B2
Click here for a map

The Ska beat and style aesthetic went on to inspire mashup culture in places like Coventry, England with the 2 Tone genre – a criss-crossing of Ska, Rocksteady, Punk, New Wave and Reggae whose vibrations crossed an ocean to inspire more fusing in places like Southern California with bands like Fishbone and No Doubt. For many people I know the 2nd and 3rd wave of Ska was the soundtrack of their youth!

And what a great soundtrack it was! Thanks Jamaica! One love!

Grab your tickets on the Gimme One Riddim Eventbrite page.