XENOS - ADELAIDE
XENOS, Akram Khan Company with 14-18 NOW and Adelaide Festival at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 16, 17, 18 March 2018. Photography various and Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan is 44 this year and has said his body began to think about retiring from solo dancing in 2011. Therefore the news that his last work as a soloist would play Adelaide as the second – and only Australian – date on a year-long world tour was greeted with a box office rush. Was it worth it?
For Australian contemporary dance (and around the dance world) Akram is a rock star and it’s no surprise. As well as being one of the great male dancers of all time, his choreographic work, TV films and work with Juliette Binoche and Sylvie Guillem in particular have enchanted millions. Xenos is, yet again, something different.
It began with a commission from 14-18 NOW, an organisation that describes itself as, “a five-year programme of extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War. Working with partners all across the UK, we commission new artworks from leading contemporary artists, musicians, designers and performers, inspired by the period 1914-18.” (Australians may have seen footage of the spectacular “Weeping Poppies” installation at the Tower of London – since presented at other sites around the country. Xenos is another profoundly moving work from the program.)
Beginning in a dark void where underworld-dim lighting reveals a steep, stage-width slope down which cascade many lengths of thick rope, a disembodied voice calmly tells us, “This is not war, this is the end of the world.” Akram, in perfectly laundered white kurta precipitately arrives on stage with another length of rope, thick enough to bind a troop of Titans.
His entrance interrupts the pre-show, call-and-response music of Indian-born percussionist BC Manjunath and vocalist Aditya Prakash. He then engages with them in a youthfully vigorous, swirling interaction in classic Kathak style. Reported in the UK press last year as he and his colleagues were in the process of devising the piece, Akram said:
“Xenos explores the central question at the heart of the myth: was Prometheus’s gift the blessing or the curse of mankind? At its centre is a colonial soldier, one of over four million men mobilised on behalf of the British Empire. One point five million of these recruits were Indian, mostly peasant warriors from north and north-western India, and they fought and died in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”
The colonies – including Australia and New Zealand – know all about supplying cannon fodder for the Mother Country and Akram also observed in the same interview, “Many sepoys were buried abroad, while those who returned home, often mutilated and traumatised, were estranged from their own histories, homelands and countrymen, becoming xenoi.”
With the occasional voice-over – relating the stages in the ascent of humankind, moments of reflection and terror, and the poem Xenos by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill – “Whose war? / Whose fire? / Whose hand is this?” – the one hour work is a typical intimate/international Akram collaboration: an English dramaturg, Ruth Little, German designer Mirella Weingarten, English lighting designer Michael Hulls, Japanese costume designer, Kimie Nakano, and Italian composer, Vincenzo Lamagna.
As well as the percussionist and vocalist, the stirring and often viscerally thunderous music and FX of Xenos – including a virtual sampling of Mozart’s Lacrimosa from the Requiem – are played live on stage (from a sometimes hidden mezzanine above and behind the slope) by English bass player Nina Harries and saxophonist Tamar Osborn, and Australian violinist Andrew Maddick. In this multicultural context the resulting melding of musics, cultures and history, as well as the intuitive accord of the ensemble gives ironic lie to the idea of xenos – “stranger”!
Xenos is an electrifying mix of theatre and dance, visual and cerebral, meditative and leap-out-of-your-seat startling, beautiful and appalling. The carefree young man of the early sequence begins to delve deep into his own psyche as he himself is plunged by circumstance into one of the worst of humanity’s inventions; trench warfare. His journey is bathed in varying sequences of music and light, from harsh to golden, and at one point, he is a sharp black silhouette against the chalky, deathly ruined landscape.
The dancer’s expressive body is a mesmerising sight as black dirt and ropes become his partners in duets of despair. Bewilderment and fear need no further expression than Akram’s precisely choreographed movements. It’s overlaid with a sense of the gnawing loneliness that must have been a young solder’s constant companion.
Akram began his dance career in Adelaide at the age of 14 when he was cast by Peter Brook in his legendary Mahabharata at the Anstey Hill Quarry at the 1988 festival. There was melancholy and magic in the house as the capacity audience stood in ovation to honour Akram (and his troupe) for the gift of an extraordinary farewell to the dance career.
An unforgettable way to end the 2018 Adelaide Festival.