Bahok: the Akram Khan Company
February 18, 2010
The ArtPower! Series of UCSD presented Bahok by the UK-based Akram Khan Company on Friday, February 12, 2010. The work was choreographed by company founder and Artistic Director Akram Khan and was presented without intermission.
As the audience entered the theater, the stage was bare except for a hanging electronic sign like the ones at airports and train stations, center stage and blank. After the opening announcements, the lights went out, plunging the audience into pitch blackness. The music began, pounding drums and insistent guitars. Suddenly the music stopped and the lights returned to reveal a tableau of four women and four men arranged about the stage, barefoot and dressed in casual clothes such as jeans and t-shirts. Some sat on plain ladder-back chairs, a few stood, their backs to the audience, looking at the hanging sign, and one sat on a suitcase, his head in his hands. All looked bored and/or frustrated.
In the silence, one woman pulled a piece of paper out of her jacket pocket and read it. She frowned and put it down on the vacant chair beside her, then pulled another paper out, then another, then another. She ruffled through the pages, and seemed to silently panic. Meanwhile, one of the men who was standing and looking at the sign dropped his hand luggage. The noise it made falling to the floor caught the woman's attention and distracted her from her papers. She softly padded across the stage, looked at the man, and then silently picked up the bag and put it back into his hand. While she still stood there, he let the bag drop again. She seemed not to know what to do. Suddenly the sign came alive, and the dancers all jumped up to look at it. The letters clicked and whirred as they jumbled through the alphabet stopping one by one until a phrase emerged: "PLEASE WAIT."
It was then that the music began again, a low electronic hum soon joined by other softly pulsing electronic sounds. The woman began to move, her feet sliding across the floor, her arms encircling her head. One by one, the other people on stage began to move, too. As the tempo of the music increased, the pace of the movements increased, until everybody was dancing and tumbling around, about, and across the stage, arms flailing and bodies sliding across the floor in frenzied moves that reminded me of 1980s break-dancing. It was as if they were venting all of their frustrations in their movements.
The sign came alive again and the dancers stopped to watch the changing letters, their hope and anticipation almost palpable. A single word emerged from the chaos: "DELAYED." The dancers all seemed to deflate and moped back to their chairs.
Many scenes played out over the course of the show. There seemed to be as much acting as there was dancing, sometimes with dialogue, sometimes with gestures. Always the sign would interrupt with messages such as "RESCHEDULED," and "GATE CHANGE."
As the work progressed, relationships emerged. In one period of silence, a man tried to sit on the chair holding the woman's papers, but the woman pushed him away. He tried again and she pushed again. He tried one last time and she pushed again, shaking her fist and shouting at him. Giving up, he ended up sitting on a chair next to a sleeping woman, who, disturbed by his movement, slid down until her head was resting on his shoulder. He tried to push her off, but she was limp and couldn't be pushed. He stood up, she stood, still leaning on him. Every time he tried to stand her up by herself, she fell onto him again, wrapping her arms (and even legs) about him. He appealed to another man for help, but the man thought they were lovers and just laughed as he walked away. As the man tried to free himself, the music began again, a beautiful melody played on the cello. The couple ended up on the floor bathed in a spotlight while the rest of the stage was dark. The man lay on his back while the woman straddled him, facing the audience. From this position they began to move their arms sinuously, looking like a single creature with four arms. Their arms played about the woman's face and body, caressing her as tenderly as the cello seemed to caress its notes. At the conclusion of this dance, the man lifted the woman and placed her back in her chair and sat down beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder and that's when she woke up, realized where she was and what he was doing and pushed him away. I had to wonder, was the beautiful romantic dance only his fantasy?
In another scene, a man and a woman were apparently called in to the Immigration Office. They sat in their chairs downstage left, facing the audience. The woman, speaking English, answered questions from an Immigration Officer (unseen and unheard by the audience). Based on her answers, the Officer was asking standard questions such as why they were traveling together (were they married? No, she said, they work together), why did the man want to visit London, does he have a return ticket, and what's in their suitcases? The woman said the man doesn't speak English very well and she tried to relay the questions to him, but the Officer apparently accused her of "giving him the answers," because she grew more defensive as the questioning continued. When she was asked what was in her suitcase, she said, "Only my father's shoes" and pulled them out of her bag, then said, "I'm not going to answer any more questions." She leaned back in her chair, silently clutching the shoes, as the man looked at her. Then the spotlight focused on him and the woman stood up and walked away, taking the shoes with her.
The man turned to face the Officer (that is, the audience) and started to speak as soft music began to play. I'm not sure what language he was speaking, but as he spoke, the sign translated his words into English. As the others on stage began to move in time to the music, the man told a story of old men spitting into a river near his home. He said that the men looked at him, as if they wanted him to spit, too, but he didn't want to spit, he just wanted to disappear, like he wanted to disappear now. He asked, "You don't understand me, do you? I am a foreigner. So are you. Can I go now?" The spotlight faded on him and came up on the other dancers. They danced together and apart, individual dancers joining first one group and then another, until finally everyone was dancing together.
This seemed to me to be portraying a desire of the individuals to be a part of a group, any group, and we want to lose ourselves, to disappear in the comfort of that group. Or maybe which group doesn't matter really, because we're all ultimately part of the same big group, anyway, and our petty differences don't matter.
Then, the woman who had been in the Immigration Office entered, but I didn't recognize her at first, until I saw the shoes. She was wearing a large jacket over a hooded shirt, the hood pulled up over her head. As she entered with her back to the audience and slowly moved across the stage, I saw that she was wearing "her father's shoes." She stood in one position for a long time until the other dancers noticed her and backed off. She began to ... "vibrate" is the only way I can describe it. The vibrations seemed to rise out of the shoes until her entire body was shaking, then she seemed to break free and danced wildly around the stage, the big jacket giving her torso a sense of blocky solidity in contrast to the fluid motions of her arms and legs. Finally she shed first one shoe and then the other, then removed the jacket and the hood. She picked up the shoes and returned to the Immigration Office and repeated her last lines, "Only my father's shoes" and, "I'm not going to answer any more questions."
In the final scene, the woman with the papers ended up with another man's cell phone (he had dropped it during the previous dance). She held the phone to her ear and asked, "Mama? Mama?" She lowered the phone from her ear and clicked it like a remote control. The sign came to life again and read, "ARE YOU LOST?" She looked at the sign, pointed the phone at it, and clicked. The sign responded with, "YOU SEEM LOST." The man whose cell phone it was noticed her actions and tried to take it back from her saying, "It's not a remote control!" but she kept the phone, pointed it at the sign again and clicked. The sign said, "IS IT IN YOUR PAPERS?" The man and the others now noticed that the sign was responding to her clicks. She clicked again. The sign said, "DO YOU REMEMBER?" Click. "HOME." Click. "HOME." Click. "HOME." Then the stage faded to black.
This performance was very different from what I expected. I expected it to be mostly dancing, a story told without words. But there were words, some spoken, some written, intermixed with the dancing and the acting. It's interesting as I was gathering my thoughts to write this paper, I searched the web for a reminder of what the sign had said in various sections of the show. I found what purported to be a transcript, but it included many more things for the sign than I saw in the show last Friday, interspersed throughout the show. Maybe they were having technical difficulties with the sign, or maybe Khan changed the show to remove some elements, but as an example, in the transcript, the last three words of the sign, instead of being "HOME" three times, were "HOME," then "HOPE," then "HOME." Does that transcript change my perception of the show? Not really. I think the show told a convincing story of human nature in a stressful, yet still boring situation (that is, waiting in a travel center) and how we might communicate when we can't understand each others' word, how we deal with the misunderstandings that arise from that effort, and how we find a common ground.
My professor wrote, "Thank you for the telling. Though there is less 'Michèle' here than in your previous work, I enjoyed the almost objective, disjointed account. It sounds like the program, though unified by "place," was surreal. A dreamlike experience where the unexpected arises from nowhere and makes sense on a psychological level."