As we found our seats for Xenos, a man with impressive breath control and a good voice (Aditya Prakash) was sitting cross-legged on centre stage intoning something Indian, tapping his knee and gesturing now and again, while another, a jolly, bouncing, smiling chap (B.C. Manjunath) accompanied him on two drums until the lights went down. Behind them a steep brown slope was draped with different lengths and thicknesses of rope, curled up at the ends. There was a child’s swing, a low table, two bundles of what looked like books tied up with rope, five chairs and a large roll of bedding. Nine naked switched-on light bulbs hung overhead which occasionally crackled like lightning. The audience chatted quietly and waited. Suddenly, it was lights down and he was there dressed in a pristine white, long tunic and trousers wound round at the ankles with what looked like gold coloured metallic beads. No shoes. This was Akram Khan, said in the publicity to be the greatest dancer performing in the world today. He danced, this man whose arms and hands seem to have no bones, so flexible and wave-like are they, while a harsh and hoarse voice-over whispered,
“This is not war. It is the ending of the world.
This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata.”
Akram’s dance was fiercely energetic exuding passion and energy, his body emitting terror, bewilderment and despair with different styles – sometimes like a Spanish flamenco, or imbued with mysticism and extraordinary concentration like a whirling dervish, his body twisting this way and that while he, trance like, was driven by the talented drummer to go ever faster as his agile fingers danced over both drums and his voice rattled out rhythmic gibberish in a remarkable display of konnakokol, (something I hadn’t heard outside of Danny Kaye in some of his gloriously manic songs.) There was no comedy in this. It was an incredibly rousing sound and sight.
Interspersed with the dancing was music. Such music. Nina Harris was on double bass and sang, Andrew Maddick, violin and Tamor Osborn played baritone saxophone. Most of it was original and composed by the musicians but included excerpts from other works such as the haunting war song “Hanging on the old barbed wire” and the immensely powerful “Requiem” by Mozart. Strange bedfellows in show like this but so moving.
The set, lighting, sound and stage management were very well planned and managed all under the Direction of Akram Khan who was choreographer as well as the performer.
The title Xenos means stranger or foreigner and World War 1 archives have been used to look at experiences of some of the 4 million coloured colonial soldiers mobilised by Europe and America, 1.5 million of them Indian. We are told “Xenos is a lament for the body in war and a memento mori for our own times of violent estrangement from one another and our world.” The dance is said to reflect labour in the form of the digging of trenches and graves, the laying of barbed wire and communication lines, the lugging of provisions and armoury and so on; it reflects boredom, discomfort, utter exhaustion, incredible noise and carnage. Many of the sepoys were lost forever, bodies shattered by shells and bullets, and even afterwards when some went home, they were strangers; they became xenoi. Khan, the lone dancer, “is no man and everyman alone in a foreign land, a stranger to himself and to an enemy he does not know”. This man has an affinity with earth. He holds the black soil in his hands and smears it on his body and his head. He is caked with it and in the end his clothing is black with it. It is the stable thing that is still there when, all around, the world is destroying itself.
I do not pretend to understand all the symbolism and perhaps it’s for each to interpret what they see. I did see a man who, over the last 18 years, has created choreography described as being the means to tell stories which are intimate, epic, intelligent and profoundly moving. I saw him as an immensely skilled dancer and thought Adelaide so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this great man – for the production marks his last performance as a dancer in a full-length solo. In honour of that, and because it’s the end of a Fringe and Festival that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, it seems important and appropriate to quote his own words.
Essentially this work is a reflection of how I feel about our world today. It is about our loss of humanity and how, through past and present wars, we are yet again confronted by the burning question of what it is to be human. How can we as humans, have ability to create extraordinary and beautiful things from our imagination, and equally, our immense ability to create and commit violence and horrors beyond our imagination?
The audience were as one giving him and his collaborators a long and standing ovation.
Akram Khan Company presents
by Jordan Tannahill
Director Akram Khan
Venue: Her Majestys Theatre | Grote Street, Adelaide
Dates: 16 – 18 March 2018
Tickets: $35 – $89