Chotto Desh takes audiences from Bangladesh to Britain through dance, animation and storytelling
- Credit: Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2017
There is no place like home. That is the overriding theme of a beautifully conceived and performed production heading to Norwich. Chotto Desh mixes dance, storytelling and animation in a story that works on a number of levels and for all ages, as John Bultitude discovers.
It is enchanting, thrilling and moving, plucking the emotional strings of everyone who watches whatever their age and background.
It sounds like a bold promise to would-be audience members but it has been echoed by the feedback of people who have seen Chotto Desh, including the notoriously hard-to-please critics.
And this multi-generational appeal is exactly what the creative team behind it set out to achieve when they first started working on it.
It tells the story of a boy's memories from Britain to Bangladesh as well as how he finds his home at odds from his cultural background and birthplace.
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Add in his dream of becoming a dancer and some wonderfully imaginative and fairytale-esque animations, and you have a story which works on all levels for all ages, which is a important element of its success.
Now the piece is set to be a key part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival as it takes to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage on Thursday.
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Presented by the world-renowned Akram Khan Company and developed for a younger audience by the artistic director of young people's theatre company Theatre Rites, Sue Buckmaster, it is poised to be an imaginative treat.
So how did Sue become part of the Chotto Desh story? It all stems back to her links to London's world-famous home of dance, Sadler's Wells, where she was introduced to Akram himself and they talked about his dance piece called Desh which explored one man's need to find stability in an uncertain world. Although initially a chat about the challenges of creating a dance piece for just one performer, it also deeply inspired Sue who thought it would be perfect to adapt into a piece for children.
She made the offer to help him create a new version for a younger audience if it ever appealed to him. When Desh finally came out, Sue became even more enthusiastic about the idea.
'It was such a personal piece and such a great foundation to build on,' she said.
Eventually Sue and some creative colleagues floated the idea to Akram. Ipswich-based Dance East and the family dance partnership Moko East came on board, and the project started to move from thoughts, ideas and concepts to reality.
But that creative process took a lot of work starting off with Sue studying Desh on video over a six-month period.
Sue said: 'We also did some research and development with children to understand their experience of multi-cultural families. As you will see, the use of phones is also important in the piece and we looked at that. I also wanted to discover how they are encouraged to get involved in the arts.'
Once that work had been done, it was then a case of re-moulding Desh into a new piece.
Sue explained: 'I knew I needed to strengthen those things that children were interested in. Desh is also quite a political piece. I did not want to take that out completely as children are exposed to quite a lot of political imagery whether they understand it or not. I thought if we can keep it symbolic and let them interpret that imagery at their own level, we could keep some of the politics in.
'I also looked at it chronologically and I realised it was missing some younger elements so I wanted to draw on animation to help with young people's imagination. I did it to put more of his younger self in and a bit less of the adult. There was a cut-off point of him being a young man so there isn't anything about him learning about Bangladeshi politics.'
Also key was the pacing and the storytelling as well as working closely with Akram to make sure key parts of Desh that he wanted kept in were not cut, and it was important to make sure that it was clear where the main character came from so that the younger members of the audience could keep up with the narrative.
Sue admitted she was also nervous about re-working such a well-known piece of dance.
'It was a very gentle shift and I had to be very brave thinking I have been doing this for 21 years but, equally, it is very hard as it was an award-winning piece. I also do not have a Bangladeshi background and there are all these cultural references. I think we have ended up with half of the original piece and half of it is new.'
Over and above making it culturally relevant and correct and ensuring it is faithful to the original, it also needs to appeal to as many people as possible.
Sue said: 'You do really need to be cross generational with this sort of thing. I knew there would be school groups and families coming to see it. Sometimes you perform it somewhere like Stratford where you have a strong Bangladeshi presence because of the area. At other times, there is no-one from there so you get really different audiences.
'I also have to think would a seven-year-old enjoy it and what about grandparents or my dad? What about someone who knows lots about dance and equally what about someone who knows nothing? I change my perspective every time I watch. Sometimes people are shocked when they come and I ask them what they think. They think a director wants to be on their own. I actually like to know what people think. I love that lots of people feed into it so that, in turn, it fits in with the audience.'
The key theme of Chotto Desh about what home means to different people at different times in their lives is also key.
Sue explained: 'Home has so many different meanings which is nice to explore and important to explore. I want children who are coming to the theatre on what could be their first time to feel at home watching dance and seeing theatre.
'It is also about feeling at home thinking about your own story, feeling at home in your own body and feeling at home where your heart is. You should also have a sense of home being your heritage. I think this word home is so evocative that I am really pleased that this show is translated as Small Homeland. That is the meaning of this place.'
It is clearly a formula that has worked. Chotto Desh has so far been performed 200 times in 56 venues and been seen by 58,142, many of them young people. Sue said: 'There are also lots of different gateways into it. It is not just the dance. You have got drama, choreography, animation and the gorgeous visuals as well as the incredible music. Just listening to that is a treat.
'It is very cross art-form, cross-culture and cross-generational. Because of the time that has been taken with it and it comes from a very personal space, it has been allowed time to grow. We never dreamed how successful it would be. I am now really pleased it is coming to Norwich.'
And the overall message of the link between lots of different cultures and countries remains topical in the current political era. Sue said: 'We need to think about a multicultural society rather than soften the edges of space and time. We're in a global interconnected world. We, as practitioners, all believe we should be breaking down the boundaries and understanding the differences between each other. I hope it is a nice alternative to the other messages of fear that we get.'
So whether you see it as a parallel parable to the way the world is as an adult or a story of wonder for a young person, Chotto Desh promises to be something very special for 2017 festival audiences.
Chotto Desh is at Norwich Theatre Royal on Thursday at 7.30pm. For more information, visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk