Xenos – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographer: Akram Khan

 First performed in 2018 and now revived by Sadler’s Wells as part of a trilogy of Akram Khan’s works under the Carnival of Shadows banner, Xenos is an exploration of conflict, heritage and human experience performed by a single dancer. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the focus on telling forgotten stories of the First World War during the centenary commemorations comes vividly to life in this 70-minute piece about the role of the Indian army, choreographed, directed and danced by Khan himself.

A man dances to live music embracing the freedom of the movements and the Kathak style. But soon he finds himself in another place completely, a dark, unforgiving landscape of death and destruction where he is subjected to intense periods of bombardment in which survival is his only goal. Emerging broken and uncertain from this experience, he tries to begin again but is plagued with echoes of the past.

Khan’s piece certainly retains its expressive power not least in the choreographic choices that blend the style of Indian dance with more contemporary forms to create an impressionistic experience of warlike shapes as the particular flex of sharp elbow and rigid shoulder prefigures the military salutes and rifle-holding action that the young sepoy will later adopt. That Khan reverses this effect in the midst of the First World War is equally interesting when the rata-tat-tat of shellfire takes the man back to the memory of the social dance he once performed as fragments of that choreography are restored to the performance.

Much of Xenos hinges around memorable stage pictures and the way Khan uses lights and positions himself in relation to Mirella Weingarten’s sloping wall is fascinating, becoming at once part of the trench system of northern Europe, the gentle hills of the dancers’ homeland and a representative space at the edges of reality where physical surety is sucked away. It is achieved with the use of ropes pulling everyday objects towards a central precipice and leaving our hero stranded in a metaphysical and actual no man’s land.

Ropes feature repeatedly in Khan’s show, as lifelines used to clamber to the top of the set or something to cling to when the darkness falls. Most interesting is the notion of history and connection later in the piece as Khan twists them together and wraps them around his head as the past and its emotional tether consumes his character, providing an unbreakable link to everything that has come before.

Xenos is more than dance in many ways and there is a complete theatricality to it that easily uses darkness, sound and original composition to create responses in its audience. From the crackling of the light or sound of pistol shots to the long periods of musical intensity that hold the viewer in the moment, pushing and pushing against their ability to endure the continuous sound, there is a roundedness to the different phases of Xenos that can be quite overwhelming.

It’s not always clear what each segment means and like the shellshocked soldier at its core, the audience too must cling to fragments of recognisable movement or meaning. But performed by Khan his dizzying spins and ability to present a coherent fusion of two different styles of dance is always exciting. Touted as his final solo performance Xenos is a strange and uncertain world capturing all the complexity of conflict and its long-lasting effects.

Runs until 4 December 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Expressive power

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