Akram Khan Company: Outwitting the Devil – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Choreographer: Akram Khan

Overt he next two weeks, Sadler’s Wells is hosting three works by the Akram Khan Company under the umbrella title Carnival of Shadows. First among these is 2019’s Outwitting the Devil, receiving its UK premiere here. Together with next week’s Xenos and Chotto Xenos, the featured works straddle the period in which Khan retired from performing to concentrate solely on choreography.

Loosely based on the Mesopotamian legends of Gilgamesh, the piece sees an old man reflect on his life. Events are re-enacted as if a dream, a voiceover in French tells us, where he is young and immortal. And so we see Francois Testory’s old man have his movements echoed and reinforced in muscular strength by his younger self.

Surrounding the stage are small stone tablets, perhaps signifying the writing materials upon which these myths were first recorded. At times, performers will lift tablets, be weighed down by them or use them to push down on others, as if the act of inscribing these tales is an act of oppression against the myths themselves.

Perhaps if the Gilgamesh stories were better known in modern culture, the events on stage might be evaluated as literal reinterpretations. But while the Company’s touring productions of this work have included programme notes talking about the myths inspiring the piece, this performance has no such accompanying material. So in this light, Outwitting the Devil can maybe grow beyond its inspiration, be evaluated on its own terms.

The problem with that is that, while Khan’s trademark choreography – combining Western movement traditions with those of Kathak and other techniques that use a dancer’s feet and hands almost as different characters to those portrayed by the rest of the body – is present in spades, the storytelling suffers from a lack of clarity when divorced from its source material.

What remains is captivating to look at – particularly with Mythili Prakash’s deity, dressed in beautiful orange robes that explode out of a stage where everything else, including the other dancers, are shades of grey. We can discern the actions of the younger version of the central character as sometimes brutish, sometimes loving – but when he seems to snap the neck of another character, questions remain. Was this a lover’s quarrel, an act of war, or something else? Is the man we might have thought of as the hero of the piece in fact its antagonist?

There is the thought that maybe this is what Khan is going for, starting with mythological stories and removing their original context so that audiences must ascribe their own. If that is the case, it is not completely effective, but one cannot deny it does make for an aesthetically beautiful evening of dance.

By the end, it seems that the dream the old man is having has come to an end. No longer young and immortal, he is aged and dying. But he is, at least at peace. And as Vincenzo Lamagna’s sometimes deafening score fades into something more serene, perhaps coming to terms with one’s own past is the true timeless story observed here.

Continues until 27 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Beautiful but muddled storytelling

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