DANCE The buzz surrounding the Akram Khan Company's second Bay Area visit — they first appeared in 2003 as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival — proved that sometimes pre-performance excitement is not the result of marketing hype. A copresentation by San Francisco Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Khan's bahok (2008), a 75-minute evocation of displacement in a world constantly on the move, proved witty, humane, and haunting, despite its sentimental ending.
Though bahok ("carrier" in Bengali) is set for an international cast of eight, this was of less interest than the way Khan peeled away each dancer's anonymity. The piece showed individuals who tease, love, fight, and ultimately find commonality despite linguistic and cultural differences. Each, some more clearly than others, was a "carrier" of the cultural forces that shaped them. But that's not all they were.
Tall Taiwanese ballerina Cheng-Fang Wu's character was an image-obsessed show-off. Her duet with the much shorter Indian Saju was pure Marx Brothers. Seoul-born Young-Jin Kim appears hopelessly lost in an interview with an immigration official but becames a determined peacemaker when breaking up a fistfight. And what about the neurotically self-possessed Spaniard Eulalia Ayguade Farro? She's the one who breaks the ice by picking up a bag dropped by the catatonically staring Sung-Hoon Kim.
bahok is set in a place of transit, an airport, a bus station — but also, perhaps, a center for processing migrants. In Fabiana Piccioli's somber lighting, the sense of nowhere numbs spirits as well as limbs, as those assembled wait for their numbers to come up. From anonymity and suffocating stasis, Khan built bahok into something like a community of hope — still waiting, but bathed in what looked suspiciously like a sunrise.
With an immaculate sense of timing, Khan layers individual dramatic episodes with fiercely physical dancing that rebounds from the floor even as it gives into it. The work started slowly with tiny movements from the seated dancers. A leg opens; an arm drops; papers are rustled. The immobile Sung-Hoon Kim seemed planted in front of a babbling electronic message-board, yet he had the first big solo, in which he sliced space with fractured fury only to melt into the ground. Then, one by one, the dancers opened themselves.
Among the most complex characters was a gymnastically flipping Farro, who raced around like an errant firecracker and turned into an attack dog when somebody dared to touch her precious papers. She just about ate the glued-to-his cell phone Saju when he didn't seem to know all that much about Indian mythology. The dynamic Saju, who has a flair for the deadpan, later defended himself in a hilarious, but matter-of-factly delivered, pan-Asian solo.
Khan doesn't shy away from metaphors; he slips them unobtrusively into his physical language. South African dancer Shanell Winlock, who tried to facilitate the interview with the non-English-speaking Young-Jin Kim, tells the invisible interrogator that she carries her father's shoes in her bag. Later, having donned a man's jacket, she stepped into them and haltingly performed a half-remembered version of an over-boot dance invented by South African miners.
One of bahok's wonderfully humorous duets showed Slovak Andrej Petrovic trying to wake up his floppy-doll Korean girlfriend, Set-Byeol Kim. Her resistance drives him to distraction, but they make a go of it, her still-sleeping form sitting on top of him as they try to find a common rhythm for their competing arms. Their bumbling was touching, funny, and all too believable.
I just wish Khan's ending had not literally spelled out bahok's meaning on that otherwise well-used message-board. There was no need for that. We got it just fine.