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”.

MIXED BAG MAG RECOMMENDS: Midnight’s Children

In the reality of each of our lives lies the potential for magic.

The stories of Salman Rushdie often centre around hybrid places and the impact they have on the psyche of their inhabitants. His characters labour with the problems that can arise with religious and ethnic pluralism. The characters in Midnight’s Children, a story set at the birth of India’s Independence, flesh out a history whose fecundity is ripe with possibilities but also all the pitfalls that come along with a diverse population in competition for their own interests.

The story of Midnight’s Children revolves around Saleem Sinai, a baby boy born at the precise moment of Independence, whose divine timing, as he says makes him “handcuffed to history.” Through his adult eyes we go back with Saleem to witness the importance of his birth and how it plays out in his life. Even the normal moments of his childhood that like so many of us involved bicycles, movie theatres and games of hide & seek, upon reflection become mythological in proportion. We join him in his search to connect the dots of a painful life that was not without its own beauty and his special gift that flips like two sides of a coin between being a blessing and curse.

In the book I enjoyed the twists and turns that the characters take along their migratory paths criss-crossing the sub-continent as well as landing in the newly formed Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rushdie’s tales are deeply layered and I appreciate the history lesson one gets when reading a Rushdie novel. I love his choice of using magic realism because the genre allows him to pierce the mystical qualities of life to show how simple moments, like a child born at the stroke of midnight, can be the stuff of legends.

In the movie I enjoyed Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s intimacy in her choice of shots. She allowed us to get very close to the characters which added a warmth to them that I missed in the book because it was so densely packed with historical details.

The other special elements in the movie was the choice to use Rushdie as the narrator and voice of Saleem Sinai as well as the moving musical score by the brilliant British composer Nitin Sawhney.

The book and the movie  each stand on their own but MIXED BAG MAG recommends treating yourself  to both. It is worth what you come away with – the idea that in the reality of each of our lives lies the potential of magic and the elements that myths are made of.

Visit the Midnight’s Children website, follow along on Facebook and twitter  @midnightsmovie #MidnightsChildren.

For Toronto screen times visit Cinema Clock!