Review: Xenos is a shattering, lethally effective hour of dance

Cables and ropes are the ties that bind in Xenos by the Akram Khan Company. Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan, one of the most original and riveting performers in contemporary dance, is bidding farewell to a large part of his on-stage career with a world tour of his latest and last full-length solo, Xenos.

In the performance, the Anglo-Bengali choreographer continues to explore his signature intercultural themes, but there is an added layer of poignancy. Khan has constructed a shattering, lethally effective hour of extraordinary dance inspired  by the largely overlooked sacrifices of more than a million colonial Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War.

This isn’t the first time Khan has drawn source material from the 100-year-old conflict: in 2014 he choreographed Dust as part of the English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget. But where Dust used a straining, sweating, tightly knit ensemble to evoke the idea of men digging trenches only to die in them, in Xenos Khan manages to express both the isolation of the foreigner fighting in a strange land, and the shared experience of soldiers who return from war scarred inside and out.  

In the work’s opening scene, Khan is a Kathak dancer hired to to perform at an Indian wedding. At first everything seems normal, as Khan, in a cream coloured kurta, slices and spins through space, his body sharp and neat as a blade, the heavy bells around his ankles jingling brightly. But then his tight discipline seems to falter and unravel. Ordinary sensory input — flickering lights, drumbeats — triggers painful memories. Before long the whole village scene dissolves, literally dragged into an abyss by ropes, pulling Khan along with it.

When we next see Khan he is in uniform, creeping jumpily along the edge of no-man’s land. The ropes from the first scene reappear as cables and wires; a Victrola serves double duty as a searchlight and a kind of oracle, speaking the names of India’s dead and forgotten. Obedient and terrified, Khan throws himself “over the top” again and again, only to be shot down or bombed to pieces. At the end, Khan is alone, engulfed by the rubble of what was his own humanity.

Ruth Little’s taut dramaturgy wastes nothing. MIrella Weingarten’s steeply sloping set makes imaginative use of vertical space. The spare but powerful text is by Ottawa native Jordan Tannahill. The creative team’s only weak link is composer Vincenzo Lamagna’s, whose score I felt lacked subtlety. Quoting the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem has become the worst sort of musical cliché. I would have preferred to hear more from the splendid, moving. virtuoso kathak musicians, singer Aditya Prakash and percussionist B.C. Manjunath.

There is one more performance of Xenos in Ottawa tonight (Oct. 13).

Editor’s note: You can read an interview with Akram Khan here and one with Jordan Tannahill here.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.