Inspiring: Akram Khan’s Chotto Xenos

Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London
December 2, 2021

Akram Khan’s Xenos is a genius piece of anti-war theatre and Chotto Xenos is a fitting progeny. Sue Buckmaster has done an amazing job in adapting and directing it to engage young people. It is never too early to inoculate children against the insidious propaganda that makes war out to be a noble pursuit and the audience who watched in rapt silence, seemed totally engaged.

Kennedy Junior Muntanga, the solo performer who hails from Zambia, is a star asset with intuitive movement quality and bags of charm. It’s a tough call for a young dancer but Muntanga kept the young audience focused and on task for the full 50-minute show. Film and projection design by Kate Cash skilfully interweaves dancer and image, creating a whole world of warfare on the small stage.

The world of warfare on stage
Kennedy Junior Muntanga in Akram Khan’s Chotto Xenos
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

The hardcore centre of the work is played out on the battlefield but it is bookended by more profound moments of birth and something of a rebirth. Hands in video close-up move in a rhythmic ritual of clasping then opening to circle and reclasp. They form a cradle to nurture the tiny embryonic boy child. It’s heart breaking to think that each of the millions killed on the battlefield would have once been such a precious baby. The closing moments return to a quiet place to find transcendental harmony to the Mozart’s Lacrimosa.

In between, the imaginative use of a plethora of props; a military jacket, kitbag, gas mask, ropes and even an old phonograph, serve to carry the narrative. Muntanga playfully brings each one to life. He is a spirited child who grows into a young man proudly wearing the uniform as well as finding plenty of humour in conversation with the jacket on a hanger. The gas masks, a symbol of the horrors of WW1, becomes a comic animal head helped by inventive choreography and creative interpretation. The hand puppet image, a two-fingered man, raises a host of ideas and like Khan did in his solo Desh, the performer is never alone, but always accompanied by a host of imaginary friends.

The text, sprouted in a stream from the old phonograph, tells the honest truth. It tells the story of the hundreds of thousands of colonial soldiers who came from all corners of the globe answering to the call of the sovereign. Treated with little respect and denied the honour they deserved, they now get a proper hearing. Hopefully these youngsters will be encouraged to take something from this entertaining and inspiring show.