Original choreography: Akram Khan
Director and Adaptation: Sue Buckmaster
Rounding off Carnival of Shadows, Sadler’s Wells’ mini season of Akram Khan Company works, Chotto Xenos is a reframing of Khan’s full-length solo work XENOS. Like its older sibling, the piece uses a solo dancer to explore questions about war and military action, this time in a form designed to be more family friendly.
Kennedy Junior Muntanga (in a role he shares with Nico Ricchini) emerges from between a giant pair of hands, a proxy for all of humanity, moulded out of clay and dirt. As he learns to stand erect, he is exposed to fire; first as a source of fear, then a source of warmth and life. And then, as a weapon.
Like XENOS, the issues of warfare, in particularly the imagery of World War I battlefields, is central to the project. First, though, Muntanga’s everyman must be called up. A gramophone stands in as the colonial masters, its large horn an imposing presence; later, when a beam of light emerges from it, it becomes a searchlight and, with a flicker, the light evokes a newsreel projector.
Muntanga greets advancements and new onstage objects with childlike awe and wonder; but when a military uniform emerges from a pile of coiled ropes, that changes. Manipulated by Muntanga, the clothing takes on a life of its own, physically chastising the dancer’s fluid movements until he retreats to the regimented marching expected of him.
Lucy Cash’s projections introduce the concept of colonial soldiers, brought into World War I in their millions, and later stunningly evoke the mud and wire of the battlefield, Muntanga cowering beneath as the flash-bangs of gunfire ricochet around him.
In the latter half of the piece, the literalism gives way to more abstract dances where Muntanga, shorn of working with props, gets to release his boundless energy in myriad frenzied spins. Perhaps it is relief at surviving the battle; there is loneliness there too, though, as those that conscripted him have no further use for him. Abandoned and alone, he still faces danger from the vagaries of war.
The discovery of a gas mask, which Muntanga expertly puppeteers into portraying a stray dog, produces more moments of levity and delight. As elsewhere, such humour serves to reinforce those moments before and after where is none to be found. But there is no happy ending in war, and the conclusion director Sue Buckmaster conjures, thanks once again to Cash’s projections, is both beautiful and tragic.
In starting with a dancer representing all of humanity in its birth, Chotto Xenos invites us to think about what it that is being killed when that same character finally leaves this plane. Some deep and searching thoughts for a family show, to be sure; but ones which, if future generations wrestle with them, have the power to change the world.
Continues until 3 December