Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
August 17, 2018
That Akram Khan, a choreographer famous for his continued curiosity and his interrogation of his hybrid cultures, will continue to make work after this final full-length solo performance is a given. Xenos is nonetheless his time to say goodbye to the stage. In this piece exploring the fractured experience of Indian soldiers in the First World War, Khan is an unobtrusive and unidentified figure, a body engulfed in and unable to escape the tyranny of its surroundings.
After the First World War, the history of many Indian soldiers who fought was erased in their country’s subsequent write up of the rise of Indian nationalism. Khan’s background and identity is likewise fraught: when his father arrived in the UK in 1969, he came from what was then East Pakistan, but when Khan’s mother later arrived, the nation of Bangladesh had been established after the war of independence in 1971. This sense of fragmentation, disorientation and ultimately trauma is pervasive in Xenos.
In the grandiose set design by Mirella Weingarten, a vertical incline, both a rolling hill and bare cliff face, cuts across the stage. Throughout Xenos, Khan clambers up and down this precipice, or stares out beyond it into no man’s land. There is a pervasive earthiness in the warm colours and scratch of sand and pine combs, and a coldness in the metal object that sits on the corner of the hill. Both speaker and light, it barks orders at Khan or swings its searchlight out across a bleak landscape. All combine to evoke the muddy, acrid, violent and dispassionate landscape of the trenches.
Memory and identity are painfully intertwined and brutally strained. In the opening sequence, two musicians strum and chant towards Khan, who enters the stage abruptly, falling over himself. He attempts to respond and move to the dictates of the musicians, who have to goad him on until he collapses, and they abandon him. In a dance of post-traumatic stress, Khan’s soldier seems no longer able to devote himself to a rite or identity he once had.
These jarring and disruptive moments are Xenos’s strength and its novelty. A calm death on the hill’s edge, a beguiling signal to the audience of a purposeful and symbolic death, is brutally denied by an abrupt darkness and a loud and grating glitch in the soundscape. The lamp switches on, coldly, and scans the environment for survivors, casualties, bodies.
Khan’s dancing is impeccable, though somewhat infrequent and reduced by the scale of the project around him. While his movements mostly involve the frantic spins and emphatic hand gestures of Kathak dance, he is lithe and adept as he rolls quickly to the floor. The truly otherworldly moment of Xenos in fact comes from the musicians, who appear as eerie spectres. Cloaked in darkness on a higher platform, they seem to float. The music reaches a pitch and resonance that physically shakes the stalls, and we are in the twilight at the edge of our known world, poised before the land of the dead.
This may be Khan’s last solo performance, but his presence in Xenos is already an erasure of self, a suffusing of the body into its environments and narratives. A uniquely anonymous final solo performance.