NAC Dance: Akram Khan gets political in Xenos, a story of forgotten soldiers

Akram Khan performs his last full length solo dance in Xenos. Photo: Jean Louis Frenandez

In the First World War, 1.4 million Indian soldiers fought for the British Empire. Thousands died or were wounded. Have you heard about their sacrifice, or the courage of the estimated four million soldiers from the British colonies?

If you weren’t aware, you aren’t alone.

About two years ago, Akram Khan didn’t know those stories either. But he knows them now and he has turned them into a searing piece of art.

The innovative dance artist is bringing his Xenos to the National Arts Centre this week. It is an important work, not just because of what is says about a long neglected history. It will also be the last full length solo performance he will do.

The idea for Xenos started when the British organization 14-18 Now approached Khan to do a piece about the First World War.

“I knew that I was going to make my final full length solo in 2018. I thought this was the time to wind up the big solos. My body is changing and it requires a huge amount of effort and time in the studio to train to prevent injury and to dance on this level.

“And that is even before rehearsals begin. I also have small children. So things have changed and I want to be around for them.”

The 14-18 Now organization has been commissioning many artists including the film director Peter Jackson. But the idea of the First World War wasn’t Khan’s only thought for his last large scale solo.

“I put it in the back of my head really because the first item I had thought was really crucial for me to tackle was the Prometheus myth. The story of the Greek Titan and how he created humankind out of clay.” Prometheus also stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to man. For his punishment, Prometheus was chained to a mountainside and Zeus sent an eagle to eat part of his liver every day. It would grow back every night.

For Khan, “I have always been fascinated with how Zeus said to Prometheus, ‘Don’t give fire to humanity’ because Zeus knew people would misuse it.” Prometheus tricked Zeus and gave fire to humans.

“I’m not sure we have learned from Prometheus. Zeus felt that humans wouldn’t value that new technology called fire. He said humans would replace the Gods with technology. It is the very story of what is happening to our civilization today.”

That thoguht remained but then Khan’s artistic team started to take a closer look at the First World War material.

“We started to discover these powerful articles that were coming out because of the centenary. They had a lot in common. They were saying that the history that we know is not as it really was. Something was omitted … that four million colonial soldiers fought for the British Empire. About 1.4 million were Indian soldiers. They died in the war and they weren’t acknowledged. That really upset me.

They started to really look into these stories at the urging of Khan’s dramaturge on the project Ruth Little.

“We came to the conclusion that the history of the war was written by white men of the West. They edited as they felt. We, who came after, never got a 360 degree perspective of what happened.”

Khan personally became fascinated by that missing story of all those colonial soldiers.

“I wanted my body to represent them, those voices that were never recognized, heard or acknowledged. It was a big undertaking but it was my final solo. I wanted to take that responsibility and attempt to shed a light on it through my body.”

Of course, this is a political statement by Khan. He’s embracing that. It’s there in the title of his piece. The Greek word xenos means stranger and the word xenophobia comes from it.

“Once my children were born, I started to open my eyes to the future. Dance forces you to be in the present. That is the power of dance. Live performance forces you to be in the present.

“But I started to look at future and suddenly I started to see the things that I had chosen not to see before. Today we are experiencing the same symptoms that were present before the world wars. It’s absolutely insane that we keep repeating ourselves.”

One of the aspects of Khan’s work is the use of words. Xenos does contains a text prepared, after much distillation, by Ottawa theatre wunderkind Jordan Tannahill.

“I have always been in and out of using words and text. What was really interesting for was that Jordan created scenarios for me to spring from, to use as a jumping board. He understands theatre.

In the end, Khan said, his body “absorbed” most of Tannahill’s words.

“What is left is in the show.” Few words are much more powerful, he said.

Khan’s process begins with everything on the table. The second part of the process is the “navigation through all that material to see what the fundamental thing is that we want to talk about. The third stage is throwing away things that don’t relate to that fundamental theme. Whatever remains is the show.

Another part of Khan’s work is his use of a classical Indian dance form called kathak.

“It is always there. But in Xenos, I start with a classical kathak concert because I am representing the colonial soldier who was a dancer in his home.

“The main character had to be a kathak dancer. After all soldiers came from all backgrounds. They were actors and engineers.” “Why not a dancer,” he said.

“But there is a bleeding within that classical concert. It’s not quite right. What you start to realize that that this is a shellshocked soldier. For him, the future is the past and the past is the future, everything is blurred in a certain fashion.”

In Xenos he starts with classical Indian dance and music and he ends with Mozart’s Lacrimosa from the Requiem.

“I love the melody (of the Lacrimosa) and what it meant. For me it is about rebirth. People who go into war, when they come back out they are not the same people. They will never be whole again. What they witness and what they experience, they are changed. They witnessed, they experienced things that they can never stitch up. It’s Humpty Dumpty. That is the story of soldiers.”

Khan is always seeking excellence in his work.

He says, “I am very conscious of the difference between success and excellence. Success doesn’t mean excellence. What I am trying to embrace is that the aim is always excellence. I don’t always achieve it.

He worries about a younger generation that lives on social media where it is becoming harder to separate success and excellence. That’s a promethean thought.

Once Xenos is done touring, Khan says he will still dance but in shorter pieces. And he is focussing on the ballet world where he has started to create work for ballet companies. He’s also working on a project that will eventually become a feature film.

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