Canadian Stage/ Xenos, directed, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan, written by Jordan Tannahill, Bluma Appel Theatre, Oct. 18 to Oct. 21. Tickets available at 416-368-3110 or www.canadianstage.com.
Among dance cognoscenti, Akram Khan is considered among the finest choreographers/performers in the world. In fact, there would be many who say he is the greatest of his generation. Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, Khan founded his acclaimed Akram Khan Company in 2000. Although he has created renown interdisciplinary productions in collaboration with diverse artists such as actor Juliette Binoche and composer Steve Reich, he is best known for his brilliant solo shows which explore the human condition in very profound ways.
Sadly, his newest creation Xenos, which is currently touring the world, is Khan’s final solo production. At age 44, he acknowledges that his body does not respond the way it used to, and that he is ready to move on to new artistic adventures. While Xenos is special because it is the end of one phase of Khan’s career, the show also means a great deal to him on a personal level. As Khan says in his program notes, Xenos reflects how he feels about the world today, particularly the loss of humanity that is infecting the globe.
The key to Xenos is its meaning. It is Ancient Greek for stranger, or foreigner, or outsider, and is, of course, the root word of xenophobia. The piece was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the British organization tasked with commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War, and Khan’s inspiration was the 1.3 million Indian troops who fought in a European conflict that had nothing to do with them. While Xenos is dedicated to the forgotten, anonymous soldiers of all wars, Khan, the performer, is the embodiment of those Indian soldiers who lived and died so horribly in the trenches. He is giving voice to their stories, which have always been left out of history books.
Xenos begins with a joyous celebration of Indian music by vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist B.C. Manjunath. It seems to be the beginning of a Kathak recital, the classical dance of North India of which Khan is a master. The dancer finally makes his entrance, but something is wrong. Yes, the hallmarks of Kathak are there in the movement — the lightning fast heel turns and showy abrupt dramatic stops, for example – but Khan’s body, while exhibiting his usual physical expression of consummate grace, also shows signs of distortion, becoming angled and off-balance. Suddenly there is a screech of static, and the dancer transmutes into a shell-shocked soldier. His mind reverts to his nightmarish memories of war as he unwraps his Kathak ankle bells, which become ammunition belts slung across his chest. The rest of the dance is a downward spiral of physical hell. An offstage voice says: “This is not war — it is the ending of the world”, which becomes a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man in all its guises, including xenophobia.
Mirella Weingarten’s set is absolutely astonishing. A high curved wall represents the side of a trench. While the dancer is undergoing his traumatic transformation into a soldier, a series of ropes pull everything up and over the wall — the musicians’ seating mats, stage decorations, audience chairs, and the dancer himself — until nothing is left but the bleak bare stage below that becomes filled with stones and dirt. When Khan reappears, he has left the kathak long tunic and pantaloons behind, and is now wearing the ghostly jacket and jodhpurs of a soldier’s uniform. The other part of Weingarten’s set design that is slowly revealed, is high above this wall, where five musicians are lined up like celestial gods, indifferent to the sufferings that Khan will experience below. There is also a life-size old phonograph that sits on top of the trench wall that scratchily intones the names of the colonial Indian soldiers.
Jordan Tannahill, a noted Canadian playwright and screenwriter, is the writer for Xenos. What, however, is the point of crediting a writer if you can’t hear what he has written? The sound level for Xenos is just below audible clarity. One can make out some phrases but not others. I did hear the names of soldiers and their occupations, but little else. Obviously, a conscious decision was made to be impressionistic in terms of words, rather than rooted in reality, but I must confess that such practices drive me crazy. Thus by necessity, Xenos became a sound, light and movement show, with the text consigned to the ether.
An Akram Khan dance piece means breath-taking visual images. During the 65-minute work, he is constantly up and down the wall performing a dizzying array of physical hardships. He uses ropes to laboriously pull himself to the top. He does a horrendous slide to the bottom as an avalanche of rocks assail him. His body is slammed by machine gun fire. He skips along the top defying the enemy to shoot him. His body is broken over and over again. He is constantly wracked with pain and suffering. Nonetheless, this soldier endures, as many of the suffering millions around the world endure.
Mention must be made of Michael Hulls’ lighting and Vincenzo Lamagna’s original music and sound score. The former has crafted a grid that latches on to every stone and clump of dirt and seemingly magnifies them. It is one of the rawest lighting palettes that I have ever seen on stage. Hulls has even created a searchlight that comes out of the phonograph horn. For his part, Lamagna has joined together shards of electronica with excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem and gloomy WW1 songs to collectively forge an audio background that evokes the hideousness of war.
Khan may feel that his body is breaking down in real life, but the gruelling tour-de-force of his physical performance shows no hint of weakness. With Xenos, Khan is leaving his solo dance career in triumph.