Performer and Choreographer: Akram Khan
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s rare that dancers become household names, but Akram Khan is familiar to many, especially since his appearance at the London Olympic opening ceremony in 2012. He’s collaborated with a wide range of artists over the years: among them, actor Juliette Binoche, writer Hanif Kureishi and even singer Kylie Minogue. At the ripe age of 43, Khan is now retiring from solo work, but unfortunately Xenos is not the farewell he deserves.
Working with 14-18NOW, the arts programme commemorating the centenary of The First World War, Xenostells the story of an Indian dancer who is conscripted into fighting for the British Army. 14-18NOW commissioned both The Tower of London poppies and Jeremy Deller’s moving live memorial We’re Here Because We’re Here, and it is right that non-British soldiers, fighting for Britain, be remembered too. Over a million Indian soldiers fought in the trenches.
Xenos begins with Khan dancing for the British colonials, a dazzling display of the North Indian dance form kathak. With bells wrapped around his feet Khan spins kathak rounds and then freezes in perfect time to the live music on stage. Kathak is a dance specifically and traditionally used for storytelling – the twists of the arms have their own language – but for Western audiences these codes remained locked and sometimes Xenos’ narrative is obscure. At times, it’s handy to refer to the programme notes.
When Khan removes the bells from his feet, he moves to the trenches, impressively designed like the side of a mountain, only just surmountable. Mirella Weingarten’s design is handsomely lit by Michael Hulls’ lights, which occasionally cast warmth upon the stage, but more often than not, scorch it red. Here, in this bleak solitude, Khan dances in a more contemporary style, the odd kathak flourish a reminder of better times. But it is here that the piece stumbles, and as Khan explores his new environment it is with relief that our attention can shift to the musicians, who appear like angels above the trench on a hidden balcony, or to the giant gramophone that delivers the names of a few of these forgotten soldiers. While Xenosrepresents the loneliness of war- or as a recorded voice says, the end of the world – there is little sense of the work done in these trenches.
Xenos means ‘stranger’, and Khan’s figure remains a stranger too, often dancing in silhouette, and despite the talented people involved in this production, it ultimately leaves one cold. Not only is this the story of a dancer fighting in a war, but it’s also a study of the human condition, and, indeed, the struggle Khan has with his own ageing body. While Xenos has good intentions, it lacks passion. Hopefully, Khan can be persuaded back to the stage for a more personal farewell performance than this chilly goodbye.
Runs until 9 June 2018 | Image:Jean Louis Fernandez