‘Xenos’ is Akram Khan’s much anticipated new production and marks his final performance as a dancer in a full-length piece. Commissioned by 14-18 Now, the UK arts programme for the First World War centenary, the show centres on the experience of a colonial solder in WWI, whilst also becoming a vehicle for a more personal exploration of the human condition.
The story follows the journey of an Indian dancer away from his traditions, and all that is familiar, to the chaos and barbarity of war. On entering the auditorium, percussionist B C Manjunath and vocalist Aditya Prakash are already in place, playing and singing freely and with much obvious enjoyment, on what resembles a clay floor. Dressed all in white and with traditional bells on his ankles, Khan enters and displays the joy and pulse of the Kathak dance form.
Everything is precise and measured, every twist and flex of the wrist expressive and placed. Gradually, the idyllic scene is fractured with dimming lights, static interference and eventually, his whole world literally being pulled out from under his feet.
The central part of the narrative becomes much more abstract, with a more diverse, contemporary palette of movement, hinting at dislocation from place, loss and remembrance. The predominant feeling is one of isolation – Khan is the only person present on stage throughout – and this emphasizes the feeling of disenfranchisement. A ghostly gramophone offers distant pronouncements, a mouthpiece for the West. Whispers of poetry are heard, and with shifting lighting and a rolling soundscape, the vision becomes dream-like, inhuman. The Indian musicians are joined by bass player Nina Harries, violinist Clarice Rarity, and saxophonist Tamar Osborn, creating a musical mash-up of East and West which conveys the curious juxtaposition of the two cultures, joined only by colonialism.
The descent into chaos continues, with traditional Kathak spinning becoming a symbol of madness and confusion, and militaristic instruction turned into a puppet-like dance. By now, Khan is shirtless, filthy and broken, clawing his way through dirt, his whole body thrown about like a doll with every ‘explosion’. Finally, the inevitable, bloody end is reached and this is beautifully expressed by designer Mirella Weingarten’s emphatically simple set.
What has been a hill, a backdrop, a trench becomes a bloody wall, depositing hundreds of individual souls on the stage. Mozart’s Requiem is played against this scene of devastation and creates a fittingly horrifying and moving final scene.
Dramaturg Ruth Little and playwright Jordan Tannahill have created a powerful story with which we can identify but this performance seems on a larger scale than even the vast landscape of WW1 can provide. It seems to search for the heart of what it is to be human: the beauty and the horror of existing as sentient beings with our own thoughts and desires. And the crushing pain and fracturing that takes place when freedom and control are taken from us. The abstraction of the piece is necessary in order to present these sweeping themes but the humanity of the production is in the individual strength, control and expression of Akram Khan. He gives himself entirely to the piece, with a breathtaking physicality and intense focus, and surely emerges from it like a lone soldier from a trench, alone, empty, shattered.
Reviewer: Kathryn McAuley.