Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dancing from the Shadows: Akram Khan's XENOS

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

In XENOS, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s solo journey into the heart of darkness, death is a perpetual presence. It haunts the stage in both poetic and elemental ways. A mound of black dirt. A phonograph doubling as a search light. Nothing is sacred. Nothing safe. There is no romancing the inevitable in this poignant meditation on the suffering of First World War soldiers; the soul is excavated, the flesh exposed and the mind racked to breaking point. Love, beauty and all we – as a so-called civilized people – hold dear end up buried and presumed lost. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. XENOS – the word is Greek for "stranger" – is like King Lear distilled to the essence of the howl, howl, howl upon the heath: an unrelenting portrait of life as viewed from the shadows.

Running nearly an hour, this intimate yet epic work of dance theatre debuted in Athens in February before touring the world with stops in Khan’s native London in June and Toronto’s Canadian Stage in October. Billed as the last solo work that the 44-year old English dance artist of Bangladeshi descent will perform on stage, its recent three-night run at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto was sold out. Audiences flocked to catch one of the most in-demand contemporary dance artists working today and did not leave disappointed. Choreographed and directed by Khan in collaboration with Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, XENOS brought a powerful conclusion to a dance career devoted to pushing the body to extremes.

Trained in Kathak, a foot-stomping percussive dance form from northern India, and known for combining classical dance traditions with the expressive gestures of contemporary dance, Khan first appears in XENOS as a dancer at an Indian wedding. Dressed in a traditional kurta with a string of singing bells wrapped tightly around his ankles (Kimie Nakano did the costume design), he interacts tentatively with a vocalist and drummer (Aditya Prakash and B C Manjunath, respectively) who have been entertaining the audience since before the house lights went down. But as an episode of traumatic memory intrudes suddenly on the planned festivities, the dancer stumbles backwards in time and into the trenches of a terrible modern war which, presumably, he earlier survived.

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

He spins wildly in a dervish symbolizing his descent into a vortex of repressed horror. His string of bells gives way to giant rope harnesses that hobble and pull him down. Artillery fire and cannon explosions trigger brown-outs and a loss of identity. Humanity itself also becomes lost in the cross-fire, along with dignity and the pursuit of aesthetics. “This is not war,” Khan can be heard saying as he strikes a feeble match to combat the encroaching gloom. “This is the end of the world.”

The tabla player and singer disappear – along with the wedding-room cushions and furniture – later reappearing on an elevated dais at the rear of the stage where they are joined by bass player Nina Harries, violinist Clarice Rarity and saxophonist Tamar Osborn performing composer and sound designer Vincenzo Lamagna’s original score. As the notes of the music gain accent and tone, Khan’s body, driven to the edge of exhaustion, slides and weakens. War is an act that has been chosen, orchestrated, given a brutal conclusion with many, like this shell-shocked soldier, claimed as anonymous victims. Free choice is an illusion. Fate is a force greater than us all.

In creating the piece, Khan and Tannahill looked not only to documented accounts of First World War atrocities, but further back to the Greek myth of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods for the betterment of humanity and all of civilization. His punishment was to be tethered to a rock where daily an eagle would come to eat his liver, which would grow back each night, perpetuating his torture. In XENOS, that primordial fire lurks in wedding-party light bulbs that sputter out when rocked by battlefield explosions, casting the entire proceedings in blackness. But on a larger level the entire piece is about how war, a beast gnawing on flesh, dims the spark of humanity, darkening all potential. Khan reenacts the debasing of the human condition by rolling and crawling in the dirt. Covered with grime, he becomes elemental, reduced in size from dancer to what in today’s language of war is insultingly referred to as collateral damage.

It’s a grim world view, to be sure. But Khan and his expert team of artistic partners present it with such chiselled focus that it becomes a powerful artistic statement. German designer Mirella Weingarten’s vertiginous trench-like set and Michael Hulls’s fragmentary lighting design visually capture the dark psychology of dehumanized existence, rendering the bleak sublime. The winds of change have blown and will blow again as suggested by the majestic final scene in which a tsunami of autumnal pine cones spills over the ramparts, covering the stage in seed. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But the dirt has life in it yet. Khan’s final dance ends with a promise of hope.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment