Akram Khan is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary dancers and choreographers, having worked in recent times with English National Ballet, the National Ballet of China, Channel 4, performers such as Juliette Binoche and even choreographing a section of the opening ceremony at the Olympics in 2012.
Xenos is a production from his own company, commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the arts organisation commemorating the First World War. In this show, rumoured to be Khan’s last solo performance, he reflects on the experience of the one million Indian soldiers who fought for the British Army and were left at the end of it – if they did survive – “outsiders” in their own land. “Xenos” means stranger or foreigner, a topical thought in these displaced times.
The show opens with a wedding dancer performing traditional Indian dance in a festive scene over-shadowed by a threat of menace. Accompanied by B.C. Manjunath on drums and vocals from Aditya Prakash, the speed, fluidity and precisio of Khan’s movement is stunning. The whole piece is a wonderful vehicle for Khan’s unique mix of traditional Indian and contemporary dance, used to fanstastic effect in the storytelling.
With beautiful symbolism, as war is declared, Khan unwraps the bells at his ankles and they become his shackles as he sets off to war. A series of sequences represent the individual human physical effort that fought the First World War. A script by Canadian author and playwright, Jordan Tannahill, punctuates the soundscape. Inspired by testimonials of onlookers and those involved, Tannahill questions the role of the individual soldier and asks who was really calling the shots in the relentless battle: “Whose war? Whose fire? Whose hand is this?”
The production is fantastically theatrical, with slick technical wizardry creating apocalyptic scenes on stage at the Festival Theatre, the new home for much of EIF‘s dance. Incredibly precise lighting, complex sound design and a variety of hydraulics reinforce the idea that the foot soldier was entirely at the mercy of much larger forces. An onstage band is revealed partway throuogh the show, featuring the two opening performers along with Nina Harries on the double bass, Clarice Rarity on the violin and Tamar Osborn serving up some gorgeous baritone saxophone.
At one point, we hear words quoted from a letter sent home by an Indian soldier during the conflict: “This is not war. It is the ending of the world.” And Akram’s production is a wonderful evocation of the desolation, the chaos and confusion that accompanied that ending. But for all the wizardry, the phenonmenal dance, the incredible music, Xenos lacks a bit of heart. Perversely, the scale and the splendour evokes the powerlessness of the individual but the heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching howl of individual pain is drowned out.