Humanity at its most vulnerable: Akram Khan’s Xenos

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
November 30, 2021

Every so often you see a performance that cancels out all the stuff that clutters life and leaves you totally in awe of genius. Xenos, now performed by a more mature Akram Khan, is such an event. I had seen the work before but coming at this time of heightened awareness of both our environment and our mortality, Xenos is absolutely in the moment proving indisputably that art is what makes us human.

By tracking the life of one unknown Indian soldier, Khan uncovers the history of millions of colonial soldiers who bravely gave their lives in World War I, for little or no thanks. Mirella Weingarten’s versatile set evokes first the rich cultural environment of music and dance while the eloquence of Khan’s bare feet on the wooden stage and the velocity of his spins prove him still a master. It’s a colourful scene, but the illuminating string of light bulbs bristle as the electric current cuts and recharges and the human world retreats sliding out of reach. Khan, now a raw recruit, scrambles in the dirt and up the slope.

Akram Khan in Xenos
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

“This is not war; it is the ending of the world,” says the disembodied voice and under Michael Hulls’ evocative lighting, the stage truly becomes a hellish world. The disorientated soldier reacts to the piercing whistled commands running back and forth along the ridge like a headless chicken. There is no meaning, no purpose in the chaos and life has no value. Vincenzo Lamagna’s harsh, booming sounds and the billowing clouds negate direction and purpose. The voice seems a prophecy.

The brief touches of humanity; the flame from a match, the snatch of a popular tune on the phonogram seem to make the misery more acute. Finally, as he slides down the slope Khan’s body seems indistinguishable from the streaks of mud. His body is rigid, arms and legs held like a mannequin. Very slowly life returns, and his limbs soften. It’s moment when time stands still. The strains of Mozart’s Lacrimosa are heard as a rain of stones fall from the ridge to cover the stage.

The piece is expertly structured, each gesture, each prop, each light has significance and relevance to the whole. Like a soldier’s dream of home, the musicians play in a box high on the back wall while the blast of rifles and the explosions tear the air below. Never has humanity seemed so vulnerable or so invincible.