Sadler’s Wells, London
May 31, 2018
His farewell to solo performance, Akram Khan’s Xenos embodies the voice of Indian soldiers engaged in World War One. It depicts their anonymity in a battle which wasn’t theirs but is equally dedicated to the forgotten soldiers of all wars.
Khan’s body becomes a huge vehicle for thought, attempting to confront the futility of war. Drawing on archive material left by some of the Indian soldiers who fought against Germany, Xenos is a lament that, despite being a solo piece, manages to depict the industrial scale slaughter of the war.
Khan conjures the shell-shocked dreams of a colonial soldier, revealing the beauty and horror of the human condition. Xenos is a tales of loss, hope and redemption, through a typically Khan movement language that shifts between classical kathak and contemporary dance. Eventually he surrenders to the earth itself, as mud and debris rolls towards him and he gives in.
Xenos refers to the soldiers as ‘strangers’ or ‘foreigners’, and prompts thoughts about our loss of humanity, and how, through past and present wars, we are confronted by the question of what it is to be human. Here that involves becoming as one with the earth, being reduced to a physicality having pushed away mental and emotional elements. The programme notes ask, how can we have such ability to create extraordinary things from our imagination yet at the same time create and commit violence and horrors. Khan successful presents these two aspects of who we are.
Khan’s soldier was once a dancer, crashing in on a vocalist and percussionist already on stage and performing a broken solo. Fluid in all the right places, it is interspersed with Khan’s kathak energy and poise. Mirella Weingarten’s set – a party – disappears, winched over what is seemingly the lip of a trench, and the stage darkens to reveal five backlit musicians on a platform high above. Bleak light (Michael Hulls at his best) reveals Khan tumbling back down the slope, now covered with stones and soil, to the no man’s land that has overwhelmed the stage. He is frantic and he is still, his body attempting to make sense of the conflicting feelings he is experiencing.
Hugely expressive as a performer, Khan’s articulations, and especially the more subtle movements, every glance, every stretch of the arm, are loaded with passion. Xenos is a performance of intensity: reflection, death, rebirth, time, alienation, identity, and memory are all here. Khan’s body is put through enormous stress, almost becoming a battleground like that he is depicting. Yet, as it progresses, some of the intention seems to get lost, the intensity of the score not matched by Khan’s work. Perhaps metaphorically that’s apt, as the soldier becomes truly lost. But you can also argue that it all gets a little self-indulgent, and that maybe a more powerful and relevant message could have been given with some editing down.
Xenos may be a personal story, but it is one with universal relevance. The mood on stage becomes desolate, the sloping wall of the set, trench or otherwise, looming behind. It leaves the audience with an unnerving message for the future as it looks back at the past.