In the year that marks the centenary of the end of WWI, Xenos is a powerful contribution to our understanding of that devastating conflict and its impact on individuals. And although it’s enacted by a single performer, Khan himself, its import is simultaneously individual and universal.
Xenos is set entirely in a muddy and oppressive trench (evocatively designed by Mirella Weingarten), where a conscripted former kathak dancer dreams of home. As the audience files into the auditorium, a singer and a percussionist perform in what is clearly the setting for a rich Indian’s house party. A shell-shocked Khan stumbles on, dressed in a traditional dancer's garb, shalwar kameez, with strings of bells around his ankles.
He launches into a pure Kathak solo, but one which becomes increasingly febrile and more desperate with every stamp of the feet, every fast turn and whirl, arms rhythmically reaching and folding, anguish grafted all over his features.
This is no house party, but merely the hallucination of a shell-shocked soldier stuck in a filthy trench, and its intense longing is gripping.
In the second section, the set for the house party – plush cushions, chairs, even a swing – is slowly dragged away, as in a dissolving dream, and we’re brought back to the reality of the trench, where the soldier goes through what Ruth Little, dramaturg for Xenos, describes as ‘a war of exhaustion, labour, discomfort and boredom, punctuated by periods of carnage.'
The soldier lays down communication lines, and as he establishes a connection, a roll call of the names of some of those Indian soldiers comes croaking out of a battered old gramophone, in a belated act of remembrance.
The third and final section of Xenos is almost unbearably poignant.
Akram Khan, Xenos, photo Jean Louis Fernandez
Naked but for a loincloth, covered in mud, lit in the dusky red of blood mixed with gunpowder smoke, Khan is now everyman, a graphic, anguished reminder of what war does to the human body and soul. As such, his dance language is contemporary, subtly infused with Kathak movements here and there. His slight body is earthbound: he crawls, he rises, his limbs jerk up, as if by continuing to move he can defeat death.
All this he does to a musical deconstruction of the Lacrimosa section from Mozart’s Requiem. It’s heart-rending.
Akram Kahn wants Xenos to have contemporary resonance. Appalled by today’s growing xenophobia, he delved into the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who created man from clay – clay moulding, reprised twice, is a key symbolic gesture in Xenos – stole fire from the gods, and as punishment Zeus had him chained to a mountain top for all eternity; just as Khan's soldier is stuck in trenches seemingly forever. From ancient Greece to modern times, Kahn seems to be saying, there's a continuum of despair and hope.
Xenos is a collaborative work. As well as those named above, sound design is by Vincenzo Lamagna and his original score is played live by five superb and versatile musicians; the highly atmospheric lighting design is by the inimitable Michael Hulls; Jordan Tannahill wrote the book and Kimie Nakano is the Costume Designer.
A Sadler’s Wells co-production, Xenos was commissioned by 14 – 18, the UK arts programme from the First World War Centenary.
An 8-minute film inspired by Xenos is available to watch online at www.sadlerswells.com/digitalstage
|What||Akram Khan, Xenos Review|
|Where||Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Angel (underground)|
29 May 18 – 09 Jun 18, 19:30 Dur.: 1 hour 15 mins approx no interval
|Website||Click here to book via Sadler's Wells website|