It is surely key to Akram Khan’s magnetism that his first training was in kathak dance, a predominantly solo form in which the dancer must both command the stage and conjure a world into being upon it. While Khan has forged his name as a contemporary dance artist, those qualities still distinguish him as a performer. So it is apt that he begins Xenos– a tribute to the 1.5 million Indians who fought in the first world war – with a kathak scene.
It is one of his best. The stage has been set for an intimate dance recital, with vocalist and percussionist in full swing before Khan – playing a shell-shocked soldier who was once a dancer – crashes in on them as if from another world. He performs a broken solo with all the exactitude, dexterity and fluency we’ve come to expect from him but, in place of kathak’s customary sweep and poise, he pulls all its energies inwards: palms flexed to block the line of motion, hands clamped over mouth, arms stiffening rather than curving into a spin.
It’s a remarkable turn, and is followed by a remarkable series of transformations that returns Khan’s character to the field of war. Unravelling his strung ankle bells, Khan ties one end to his wrists so the dancerly accessories become jangling chains that shackle hands to feet. As he then wraps them around his torso, they transmute into a ghastly fusion of straitjacket and ammunition belt. The entire set – chairs, charpoy, cushions and all – is winched up a slope behind him, as if the world itself were being sucked into an abyss, and the stage darkens to reveal five backlit musicians on a platform high above the set, unearthly as apparitions. When a bleak light returns, Khan tumbles back down the slope, now screed with stones and soil, on to the no man’s land that now forms the front of the stage.
It is a masterly sequence. Mirella Weingarten’s monolithic set, Michael Hulls’ space-shaping, mood-making light and shadow, the grounded sound of the Indian musicians ceding to Vincenzo Lamagna’s free-floating, filmic score – all the elements are proportionate to Khan’s riveting performance.
Yet having arrived in this war zone, the piece loses impetus. To be sure, much of the imagery remains inspired. A giant gramophone player becomes, variously, an ear trumpet to amplify the names of the dead, a searchlight strafing the stage for signs of life and a light signal blinking emergency messages. Khan winds a rope around his head as if to un-see the world, spins into vortices of desolation and convulses to the sound of explosions, his body a battleground.
As production and performance, Xenos is superb; as a piece, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts
The problem is not that Khan can’t hold the stage – he can and does – nor that the piece relies on the grandness of its staging; it is that the individual scenes, all based on mood and imagery, lack a strong enough framework to move them forward. They set Khan repeatedly climbing up and tumbling back down the slope, accompanied by numerous slow-build crescendi and sudden cuts that give the sense of an ending, many times over.
As production and performance, Xenos is superb; as a piece, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. If advance publicity had already memorialised Xenos as a kind of ending – Khan’s last-ever full-length solo – I wonder if it might prove more significant as a transition: beyond the solo.