Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
March 17, 2018

Akram Khan Company’s latest work, XENOS, is many things. It is the last full-length solo to be performed by the British choreographer and performer himself before retiring. It is a visceral and richly textured intersection between music and dance of many forms. It is a visually arresting experience on a scale so grand that, at times, you don’t believe your eyes. And, at its heart, it is a sobering exploration of the human experience of war and its ripple-like effects on humanity.

This makes for grim viewing. But as the program note tells us, no other work of Khan’s has aligned so closely with his personal journey as an artist. There is a raw urgency in this story that oozes from every part of Khan’s body. Although he seeks to tell the story of certain others – something which he sees as his personal duty so that their stories are not lost – Khan’s performance is so visceral and nuanced that he becomes the everyman. We see ourselves on stage: victims of, but also complicit in, a collapsing humanity.

“Xenos” means stranger or foreigner. It is a reference to the experience of non-white colonial soldiers of World War I, predominantly from India. If not killed in action, they returned home to a wave of Indian nationalism and rejection of colonial rule, which sidelined their battlefield experience and erased their history and identity. Using stories and archival data from the Great War, XENOS presents a “portrait of an Indian dancer whose skilled body becomes an instrument of war”.

The work opens with the dancer moving in a relatively domestic setting, accompanied by a singer (Aditya Prakash) and percussionist (B C Manjunath). Khan’s unique blend of classical kathak and contemporary dance situates us in a very specific cultural and geographic location. The grounded footwork and stomping are accentuated by strings of bells wrapped around his ankles, which at first appear to be simply decorative. But they soon appear as shackles, then as chains tied to his limbs, and then as a bullet vest wrapped diagonally across his torso. He has become the soldier.

Mirella Weingarten’s stunning set design dramatically echoes the soldier’s transformative journey into another identity and place. In this desolate world, Khan’s movement vocabulary shifts between the symbolic (there are gestures representing held weapons) and the functional (he acts as a soldier tasked with laying communication wires in a warzone). Text by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill gives voice to the experiences of these sepoys in no-man’s land, eerily delivered through a megaphone that, at times, doubles as an enemy’s searchlight or gun.

By telling the story of a soldier, we are reminded that, in war, we play god. Life and death are mere decisions. XENOS is a lament for the body in war. The dancer becomes the vehicle through which we question our own humanity and humanity itself. Khan’s powerful and mesmerising choreography is the site of this questioning.

With an uncanny ability to animate any part of his body, Khan walks just his index and middle finger across the dirt-covered stage, like a child innocently playing a game. At other times, he crawls bare-chested and filthy down the sloping set under pulsating red lights. At yet another point, his outline blurs when he spins so fast his centre of gravity is almost completely destabilised. These moving images depict a body under duress: reflecting, coping, rationalising.

But XENOS is careful to avoid sentimentality. Harsh and dramatic shifts in tone and energy are littered throughout the piece, furthering the uneasiness of watching the dancer’s struggle. Often these transitions are driven by the superb sound of five musicians who, like deities, perform in a box floating above the stage. The mostly-original score by Vincenzo Lamagna is hauntingly beautiful and directly connects with Khan’s choreography.

If XENOS is a work that speaks most clearly to Khan’s personal journey as an artist, then we can only admire his ability to make sense of these big and troubling issues and share them with his audiences. The work is heavy, without a hint of lightness in its hour-plus runtime. But it is also deeply moving, made all the more acute by the fact it is Khan’s last time performing a solo work. Khan and his team deserved the immediate and sustained standing ovation that XENOS received.

XENOS is at Her Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Adelaide Festival until March 18


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