September 22, 2018
XENOS, the latest work from Akram Khan, may be set within the context of the First World War and the effects of battle on those who experienced it, but it goes much deeper. It’s a reflection on humanity, on life and death, homeland, alienation, distance and memory, and how we should tell stories of those times and those with us no more. Then there is the added poignancy of it marking Khan’s last ever full-length solo performance. It makes for a very emotional evening indeed.
For XENOS, and marking the centenary of the end of World War One, Khan has chosen to draw attention to the experiences of the over one million Indian soldiers who fought for Britain. They were soldiers who were strangers in a foreign war, and who have become strangers in history (‘xenos’ means ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ in Greek). As Khan observes, those soldiers and their stories became strangers ever more when their stories were locked away in archives following the rejection of colonialism and all that was associated with it. Only now are their stories starting to be heard.
The scene is set by Mirella Weingarten’s striking, sloped set, covered with ropes that we later discover are attached to the various scattered props. A few light bulbs are strung roughly above. It is stark, and yet XENOS opens at a wedding. We imagine the guests dancing to the live music of percussionist B C Manjunath and singer Aditya Prakash. Khan’s entrance is dramatic. He stumbles on carrying a heavy rope and falls. A dog barks, there’s the rumble of artillery, the lights flicker and go out.
A soldier who fought in the war, Khan is a dancer at the festivities. As his kathak solo gains speed, one sense the desperation of a man trying to hold on to the present but it’s not long before his shell-shock and the trauma of war kicks in. Bells are unwrapped from his ankles and become chains. The present is literally pulled away as those ropes drag the props up the slope and into the blackness beyond. When it engulfs Khan too, five musicians appear high above, like angels. When Khan remerges, he, or at least in his mind, is back in the trenches. When he falls down the now mud-splatted slope with a crash, it’s like falling out of a time vortex, falling back into his past. “This is not war, it is the ending of the world,” whispers a voice. That is probably just how it seemed.
Now East meets West. Past meets present. Classical kathak meets contemporary dance. Khan presents a haunted figure, his dance suggesting distance in time as well as place. In one of the more poignant moments, an old gramophone perched on top of the slope starts reeling off names and previous occupations of Indian soldiers who died. It’s a reminder these were ordinary men with ordinary lives. “Half of them already dead, sir,” the voice continues and repeats. Later, the horn of that gramophone becomes a threatening gun pointing at him and a searchlight.
In a scattering of recollections, his pain unfolds further as his mind spirals downwards. There’s a distinct sense of being alone in a world foreign in every respect. Reflecting the depth of personal feeling within the piece, everything seems natural and very real. The movement is increasing earthbound, as though the ground is soon to swallow him up.
There are no answers. Just questions left for us. A final tortured dance precedes a landslide of pine cones, some of which bounce into the front rows, dragging them into the action even more.
XENOS may be a solo in one sense, but special mention must go to the other creatives: to Vincenzo Lamagna, whose original score is played live by those five superb musicians; to Michael Hulls, who lights the stage so atmospherically, often scorching Weingarten’s set a deep, bloody, red; and to Jordan Tannahill, who wrote the book, and costume designer Kimie Nakano.
While making the piece, Khan says his body “was complaining all the time,” and that it has “really shut down.” You wouldn’t spot that from XENOS, which is an immensely powerful experience. Yet as the world of it’s one man falls apart, it’s a work that’s also gentle and profound. It is about war and its effects, but it’s also about human frailty and loss, about coming to terms with the hand fate deals. It’s a very fitting farewell creation for himself.
Akram Khan’s XENOS, Until the Lions and Chotto Desh continue to tour worldwide, with Until the Lions appearing at London’s Roundhouse in January 2019, with Khan performing alongside Christine Joy Ritter and Chien Ching-ying. For dates and links to booking sites, visit www.akramkhancompany.net.