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Akram Khan Company – XENOS at Sadler’s Wells | Review

Akram Khan
Akram Khan

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells is Akram Khan’s final full-length performance as a solo dancer. This creation, therefore, marks the end of an era in international contemporary dance, in performance at Sadler’s Wells until 9th June 2018.

It’s a contemporary dance piece drawing attention to a hidden horror of the First World War, the death and maiming of more than a million Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire. Men, whose life sacrifice has lain among the embers of that conflagration, largely unremarked upon by those of us living in the mother country until now.

Xenos has meant stranger or foreigner since the time of Homer’s Greece. Akram Khan is no stranger to most of his audience, we trust him, this man of wondrous performances and the parts he has danced before linger with us as we watch him again. Time overlaps on his stage. This time he is imagining a dancer as a soldier, a rifle put in his hand. It could have happened to him in another life. Another time.

The show starts with an Indian lament played by two musicians in a village on a stage lit by a string of golden light bulbs with the house lights up. The audience is chattering but with a roll of stage thunder the village lights flicker and it remembers to pays more attention. The house lights remain up. Anticipation disperses into anxiety. The performance is supposed to be eighty minutes long and we’ve had more than ten minutes of this lament already. No sign of Akram. When he eventually arrives he collapses onto the stage as a beginning.

The programme notes communicate he’s now suffering from intense fear in a five-minute block before every performance. His body isn’t delivering to him anymore, he tells us, this dancer who was once a young man inspired by his physicality says he isn’t anymore. His present reality is that “it has really shut down” and he’s found vulnerability there.

Xenos is, however, a performance by this new Akram alone without any dance support. It’s a battlefield. His back isn’t bending, his kathak moves not snapping sharply, his gestures not extending lines. Suppose this was a new performer in the Lilian Baylis studio not Akram Khan on the main stage? You have the sense he’s conserving energy. The ropes of his ankle bells unwind to become chains, fastening him to the eternity that’s human war. The remnants of village life are torn away, travelling up Mirella Weingarten’s effective minimalist set of a rising, extending ramp which becomes the steep slope of a wartime trench, beyond which everything but the dancer disappears. Dogs bark at distant danger.

And then the magic happens. A five-piece set of wind and string musicians are hovering in the dark as if they’re gold celestial beings, angels above the trench, while Akram’s struggling below and a bigger sound becomes a driving, monolithic march from the past to the future and you’re blown back in your seat as if by an invisible force. Vincenzo Lamarga’s score and sound design incorporate power and poignancy together and in turn. (Lamarga was also the composer and arranger for the Akram choreographed ENB Giselle.) The rendering of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor K.626 by these players pierces to the core, Nina Harries voice sublime.

There’s poetry too, text written by the Canadian playwright, Jordan Tannahill, spoken by Akram Khan in his soft London voice. Names of sepoys who were lost fighting away from home are heard as if they’re warriors of myth. Akram tells us he’s a son, then a father, moving to the surreal for he claims to be a daughter and a mother too. We are lovers. I am alone, he says. There’s a lot of loneliness in these words. It’s another time, in another time he repeats.

Akram Khan ends the show with the extended illusion of a simultaneous front and backspin, a dance effect cinema produces by slowing and speeding film but which he performs in life through light. Then he falls one last time among the tumbling rubble of the set, marked and wrecked by the filth of it all.

By these means, Akram Khan succeeds once again in bringing the poetry and pain of life to capacity audiences for Xenos. And despite his own doubts, there are signs this transition he’s going through, with the arrival of those new vulnerabilities which must occur to all mortals leaving the nirvana of youth, will distil to new levels of power the art that’s yet to come from this choreographic master of dance and the imagination.

4 stars

Review by Marian Kennedy

Marking his final performances as a solo dancer in a new full-length piece, Akram Khan takes to the stage alongside five world-class musicians.

Shifting between classical kathak and contemporary dance, Khan conjures up the shell-shocked dream of a colonial soldier in the First World War. XENOS takes place where humanity stands in wonder and disarray, on the border between East and West, past and present, mythology and technology.

A stellar creative team joins the journey, including fellow Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist lighting designer Michael Hulls, dramaturg Ruth Little, Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, German designer Mirella Weingarten, costumier Kimie Nakano and composer Vincenzo Lamagna.

Akram Khan Company — XENOS
29 May – 9 Jun 2018
Sadler’s Wells
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R
https://www.sadlerswells.com/

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