Akram Khan, Leicester 2010


Reviewer's rating

This solo work originated as part of the national cultural commemorations for World War One, 14-18 NOW. It returns to Sadler’s Wells as part of ‘Carnival of Shadows.’ Akram Khan will not perform it again once he stands aside from solo performance; so this is the final chance to encounter this particular distillation of his characteristic blend of ‘kathak’-inspired narrative dance in conjunction with reflection on themes of war, loss and displacement.

Xenos means ‘foreigner’ or ‘other’ and in this setting this reference points translates symbolically into the alienation experienced by Indian soldiers in World War One, who were abruptly transplanted from the sub-continent to the horrors of the Western Front. We start innocuously enough, as Akram Khan dances with bells on his ankles to traditional Indian accompaniment of melismatic singing and percussion provided on stage by accomplished practitioners Aditya Prakash and BJ Manjunath. Then this benign vision is abruptly ended as all the props and furnishings on stage suddenly begin to rise up the steep slope backdrop dragged along by ropes amid an intense unsettling soundscape.

Scattered earth descends the slope, and we are transported with Akram Khan to the nightmarish, confused and confusing world of trench warfare. Some text is intoned during this segment and the movement echoes abrupt violent military gestures of drill and rifle fire rather than traditional dance. Ropes again feature as Khan hauls himself up and down and long the parapet and connects cords with one another. This section is perhaps too extended and could usefully be reduced to bring the overall running time down to an hour. However, there is a particularly beautiful point of repose where the dancer disappears behind the ropes against a background of sweet-toned traditional Indian music and seems to find again within himself the harmony and reconciliation of the opening minutes.

The final segment sees the slope rise up even more vertiginously to release a shower of rocks and coals which cascade remorselessly down on and around the isolated figure of the dancer. This is an intense and absorbing culmination set against the cumulatively powerful soundtrack of the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, and a vivid lighting scheme that takes us into abstraction as the black rocks are contrasted with the stark scarlet of the rising ramp.

The success of this work rests with ensemble effort rather than individual star power. The set by Mirella Weingarten is a major player in the action, and the play of light and shade is delightfully calculated by Michael Hulls throughout. The music score has great variety of tone and timbre thanks to the union of traditional Indian performers with Western instruments – a violin, double bass and saxophone, alongside electronic interventions. While in this work there is less pure and sustained dancing than usual from Khan himself, we do get to witness his unique ability to find a synergy between gesture and movement and large themes of contemporary human concern. It is to be hoped that a documentary film and record can be kept of this performance so it can be appreciated in future years, though of course it may in the meantime be reinterpreted as well by other artists.

While the Akram Khan Company will surely develop in the coming years in fresh and original ways, as a compilation of its founder’s own style this work is not to be missed, offering as it does a searing meditation on the destructive power of war and ability of the individual to find the human resources to survive and rise beyond pure negativity.