Dances with words: Ottawa’s Jordan Tannahill explains his role in Akram Khan’s Xenos

Ottawa's Jordan Tannahill. Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

Ottawa’s theatre wunderkind Jordan Tannahill is always up for a challenge, especially when he’s working with a world-class artist in an important production. But writing for dance?

It’s true and the proof is Xenos, by the Akram Khan Company, which opens at the National Arts Centre Thursday evening.

Xenos will be the last full-length solo performance Khan will give, so it’s a bit of a big deal.

Tannahill was at his grandparents’ cottage near Pembroke, Ontario when he explained his role:

“Two of my plays, Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, were being staged by the Canadian Stage Company and the former artistic director Matthew Jocelyn wanted to introduce me to Akram, whose show Torobaka was playing at the time in Toronto.” By the way, the plays have just been nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for English Drama. He will also attend the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 to discuss his novel Liminal and other things.

“There was an ulterior motive for the meeting. Akram was looking for writers to adapt a solo dance piece called Desh into a feature film. He had heard my name and that was kind of moving forward. It might still happen, but Xenos soon became a larger priority.”

Xenos examines two main thematic lines: the myth of Prometheus, the Greek Titan who made humanity out of clay and the story of the 1.4 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent who fought for the British Empire in the First World War.

“For me, as a writer, it became quite important to establish what Akram’s personal relationship was with this material. We talked a lot about the 1.4 million who fought on behalf of the empire. Many were Muslim and their contribution has been underplayed or erased.”

Akram Khan in rehearsal. Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

At the time he was working on the project, Tannahill said, an archive of recorded interviews with Indian veterans of the First World War was digitized and released. That proved invaluable.

Over time a narrative emerged featuring a court dancer from Lucknow.  The soldier was volunteered to fight by his nawab. On the Western Front the soldier ends up doing, as many of his compatriots did, doing a lot of menial work such as digging trenches and laying cables. It was dangerous drudge work, Tannahill said.

“The idea of laying cables and rope, as a result, became a visual motif in the production. And, of course, the presence of mud and clay (smeared on the solider and elsewhere) and how that ties with Prometheus forging man out of clay, was another expression of an idea,” he added.

As well, he said, “the presence of lost voices is an aural motif that also exists in the work. These are embodied in a gramophone set on stage. It is uncovered during the course of the dance and becomes (the soldier’s) interlocutor.”

It is also a source for Tannahill’s text which is mostly on a pre-recorded voice over.

“That theatrical sensibility is very characteristic of Akram’s work. He is definitely working quite unabashedly within the spectrum of performance. The visuals are also active players in the piece, as is the live music,” Tannahill said.

In the end his words have been distilled into a sort of narrative poem.

“Initially I generated pages and pages of text that guided a lot of the stage images. They were later stripped out in a necessary and inevitable process when working with dance. Of course the body can communicate so much, so to have words on top of it is sort of redundant.

“We had to look then at when we needed hear the words and when we needed to see the story told through choreography.”

Khan, Tannahill said, “is an extraordinary collaborator, One of his great skills is to be able to elicit great work from collaborators. He gives them lots of room.”

Tannahill, who lives in London, England, these days, was present for a lot of the rehearsals. He was writing based on what he saw was going on and refining his text constantly.

“It was definitely a very organic process and the text changed a lot. I did write in isolation first and then once we were in the rehearsal room, things were  worked through.”

It was definitely a learning experience.

“I would say that it’s a very lean text for the amount of time invested. That’s the beauty of dance and the beauty of this piece. Everything was ‘essentialized’.

“We had time to do that. He is a well supported artist so we had this extraordinary process where we were working in this old broken down manor house sort of like a rundown Downton Abbey.

“In parts of the building the floors were collapsing but in the back of the manor there is this theatre. It’s called The Grange and it’s just outside of Winchester. In summer the place plays host to an opera festival.

“We had a driver pick us up at the train station and we were driven through the countryside with pheasants running through the woods and horses standing sentinel in foggy fields.

“We were in the servants’ quarters where we needed space heaters. So in this ruin of empire we were doing this piece on the First World War.

His original script was heavily distilled, but he’s OK with that as every word is important.

“It is really great to be able to meet a great artist halfway on a project when all the barriers are down.”

Tannahill was in Athens at the Onassis Cultural Centre for the opening night of the tour.

“It was extraordinary. Everything did come together in the end. With Akram, I am coming to learn that a lot of things remain in the air until he turns it on, on stage. I was confident we had something of a high calibre, but I had major question marks about certain things.” These questions were answered opening night.

“And he continues to refine the work as it proceeds, so I am anxious to see it again in Canada.”

Tannahill will be in Toronto for the presentation there.

Meanwhile, he’s finishing up a Virtual Reality theatre piece called Draw Me Close which will premiere at the Young Vic Theatre in London in January. The piece is a co-production with the National Film Board and the National Theatre of London. An earlier version was seen at the recent Venice Biennale, he said.

But “this production in London is going to be the first time the full hour-long piece will be presented.”

The Akram Khan Company presents Xenos
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Oct. 11-13 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

In town: Jordan Tannahill will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 at 9 p.m. on a panel titled Modern Love with the poet and novelist Dionne Brand. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.