Akram Khan dedicates his solo Xenos to the anonymous Indian soldiers who lost their lives in the trenches of WW1 fighting a battle that wasn’t theirs. Some of their names are read out by a crackling voice-over emitted from a giant gramophone as Kahn looks on puzzled. We mourn them, contemplating what their lives had been like and how much they had sacrificed for the British. At the beginning of the show, Khan and his musicians, BC Manjunath and Aditya Prakash sheltering together, form a close-knit community, in the wake of something sinister. They make music while Khan dances Kathak and there is a feeling of belonging and hope. From this place of intimacy and the stories of individuals, Xenos develops into a complex universal narrative about humanity, asking philosophical questions on war and destiny: why do some people have to die in war while others live; who decides and what do we learn about those actions.
Khan, at the end of his performing career with a significant body of work behind him, meets the challenges of such a work as he usually does, but Xenos is an intense and difficult experience for the audience. There is no reprieve from its menacing references to war and apocalyptic outlook, effectively communicated in the design, choreography and sound. These include frequent black-outs and explosions, Khan’s unrelenting flight or fight energy in the impossibly fast spins or furtive rolls into the ground. Vincenzo Lamagna’s film-like music and sound score, which crescendos to ominous, ear- splitting levels or drops to quiet, deeply sad solos such as Nina Harries singing Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.
Multiple metaphors of death, birth and struggle emerge in the dark, shadowy lighting, ropes and empty chairs, the dirt and dust, or movement sequences of falling, staggering and collapsing. Khan’s brilliant collaborators are fundamental to the affective power of the work. Mirella Weingarten’s set reveals land ravaged by destruction – a steep sloping surface strewn with ropes, down which Khan tumbles or ascends. Michael Hulls’ evocative lighting either colours the stage with red earthy hues, blackness or the pallor off a desolate terrain. The sensational, diverse-skilled group of musicians, who raised above the stage emerge from the dark like gods, shape a rich and memorable aural landscape.
One of the overriding conditions in Xenos, is that of intense loneliness. For most of the duration of the work, Khan is alone on the vast stage, battling with some fundamentally difficult questions about death and the futility of war. His solitariness is felt both in moments of stillness as he squats on the sloping stage, his head in his hands or when he’s on the run, moving like a fugitive, carrying the weight of war and all its uncertainties, symbolised by the chains he wraps round his body. There’s also a scene near the end where he dances a more contemporary style, performing repetitive sequences that comprise of stretches through the upper body followed by sudden collapses from the waist; tropes that suggest both trauma or uncertainty. While these are poignant moments that touch us profoundly there are other scenes that feel inaccessible, even self-indulgent and seem to be about Khan’s ego rather than a shared reflection on war and destruction.