Jane Howard on Akram Khan’s new work Xenos, which played at the Adelaide Festival at the beginning of a world tour
Akram Khan – in reportedly his last full-length production as a performer – is an astonishingly precise dancer. In Xenos, he moves through the air as if he senses an unseen force of wind, catching it on his arms to spin skyward, then hooking into its current to be pushed into the ground.
His legs and arms appear to be controlled by different brains: a steady percussion of his heels on the ground, driving southward with intensity, the Ghungroos bells tied around his ankles beating out over the music. But his arms and torso are free, moving unencumbered from the constraint of bones, separate from the beat of time.
Akram Khan Company’s work is known for its fusion of the classical Indian form kathak and contemporary dance, and Khan’s movement embodies this incredible lineage of dance across centuries and across continents. In Xenos, this lineage becomes a celebration of the conversation between Khan’s English upbringing and Indian heritage. But it’s also a criticism of colonialism: a British government which ruled over the Indian people and which sent hundreds of thousands of Indian men to the European arena of the First World War, to fight a battle that wasn’t theirs.
In the past four years in Australia, during the centenary of WW1, we have seen an incredible volume of art inspired by that war. With Memorial and The Great War, Xenos is the third such work in this year’s Adelaide Festival.
Khan’s anti-colonial perspective in Xenos brings an unfamiliar urgency to this glut of work. On and off stage, Australians have been repeatedly force-fed the myth of the formation of the ANZACs as the birth of a nation: a white country united by an unsuccessful battle in Gallipoli, and the death and pain that followed on a continent on the other side of the world.
There is none of this romanticising in Xenos. It’s a story of the deep relationship between two catastrophes – WW1 and of colonialism. The work never says this explicitly. It’s expressed in how the stage is cleared as if the sets are being pulled into an unseen hellmouth; in how Khan unties the Ghungroos from around his ankles, hoisting them around his torso so they take on the presence of bullets in a bandoleer; in a rope seemingly acting as an alien hand; in the sparse lighting which obstructs or reveals the oddities of the space and of the body.
Michael Hulls’ lighting is subtle, playing over Mirella Weingarten’s red curved set. Hulls conceals and reveals the band, standing upstage behind a scrim, or shows us Khan in profile – a black outline moving against red earth peppered with a slow descending stream of black dirt. He lights him clearly, or bounces the light off his naked torso and bald head, making him look otherworldly. When the lights shift you realise that Khan is caked in a fine white mud, mixed with the dark dirt. He is being consumed by the ground he must fight on.
There is a sparse text, mostly written by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill and dramaturged by Ruth Little, supplemented by fragments from letters written by Indian soldiers and sent home: “Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world.”
You can’t help but feel a particular sense of urgency and beauty to the found writings that isn’t expressed in Tanahill’s work. The letters sit comfortably in metaphor, whereas Tanahill’s language labours the point, pushing the work too far into literalism. The power of Xenos is from the physical embodiment of this never-world state in Khan’s body. He, and this stage, sits outside the world that we walk through each day. Xenos is about the emotions of war – its loudness, its disorder, its scramble, its isolation, its drudgery – rather than the literal actions of laying cables or loading guns, and it falters when it moves too far into literalism.
Like Khan, the five musicians embody an intersection of Indian and Western traditions, classical and contemporary. Vincenzo Lamagna’s score and sound design play with Mozart and traditional Sufi laments, expanding into contemporary spaces of dissonance and discomfort. We hear dogs, whistles, machine-gun fire, the static of radio. Sometimes all we have is this noise, echoing loudly through Her Majesty’s Theatre, beating deeply through our sternums, threatening to dissolve our own bodies into the air around us.
In both music and movement, Xenos begins firmly in classical Indian artforms, and expands into contemporary fusion that’s less constrained by rules and tradition. But the foundation is always classical: Khan’s free wrists, his feet beating into the ground; the ethereal singing of Aditya Prakash and the konnakol percussion of B C Manjunath. Through the work, Khan creates a story of distress and destruction: but at its core is an artist at the top of his game.
Adelaide marks only the second performance of Xenos in a world tour that will see Khan perform in at least 15 countries. The production is an astonishing achievement. What his relationship with dance will be at the end of the show’s run, presumably several years down the track, remains to be seen. The dancer we saw perform in Adelaide is an artist in consummate control of his craft and the physicality of his body. It’s hard to believe we have truly seen his last performance.
Xenos, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan. Text by Jordan Tannahill, dramaturge by Ruth Little. Design by Mirella Weingarten, lighting design by Michael Hulls, costume designed by Kimie Nakano, music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna. Music: percussionist B C Manjunath, vocalist Aditya Prakash, bass player Nina Harries, violinist Andrew Maddick, and saxophonist Tamar Osborn. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide Festival
Jane Howard is a freelance arts journalist, critic and researcher. She is a contributing editor at Kill Your Darlings, where her work has been shortlisted for both the SA Media Awards and the SA Press Club Awards, and is a regular contributor to Guardian Australia.
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