In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus stole fire and gave it to mankind, enabling human progress and civilisation. For this the gods punished him. He was shackled to a rock where, every day, an eagle tore out his liver, which then grew back overnight. Around this grim allegory Akram Khan has fashioned a profoundly moving new work, Xenos. A solo performance of an hour’s duration, danced by Khan himself, the work reflects on the suffering of soldiers in the first world war, and particularly on the experience of the Indian colonial troops, many unrecognised and unnamed, who answered the empire’s call.
The piece opens at an Indian wedding, where a Kathak dancer is to entertain. The setting is spare and ambiguous, the lighting provided by a makeshift tangle of wires and bulbs that references the trenches as well as Indian wedding decorations (lighting design is by Michael Hulls, to whom unstinting praise). As Khan’s dance unfolds, there are power cuts and brownouts, and the crackle and rumble of artillery bombardment. The dancer, we learn, is a former soldier, reliving the horrors of war. The wedding scene dissolves. The dancer’s world is now bounded by a rampart of earthworks, and the decorations are replaced by a searchlight scanning a frozen no man’s land. The percussion becomes a series of reports from a sniper’s rifle, which repeatedly lift Khan from his feet and pitch him to the ground, limbs akimbo. Five musicians, meanwhile, occupy an Olympian dais behind the performer. “This is not war,” a voice track announces hopelessly. “It is the ending of the world.”
Dance is unequalled as an expression of vitality, of life force, but it takes an exceptional choreographer to show the body as the fallible, frangible thing that it is. As Vincenzo Lamagna’s fine score builds in volume and intensity, Khan gives us the failing body, the breaking body, the body as repository of physical and psychic pain. Xenos is an endurance test for his shell-shocked character, endlessly driven up the trench parapet to meet the staccato chatter of the guns, and also for Khan himself. At the age of 43, he talks of the “inner battle” he had to fight to create this work, which will be his last as a solo performer. His body, he says, has “shut down”. Not that you would know it, for this is a mighty hour of dance.
Xenos (the title comes from the Greek word for “foreigner”) is a physical tour de force, but it’s also as taut as a drumskin conceptually. Granted control of his destiny, mankind chooses to wage war and is punished by moral evisceration. Khan’s unknown soldier is pinned out on that parapet for all time, condemned to endlessly relive his suffering at the hands of his fellow men. Khan draws an implicit, if not explicit, parallel with the fate of other xenoi, other foreigners, scattered to the winds by circumstances beyond their control, and eternally trying, and failing, to scale the ramparts of a world that rejects them. This is a work of defining greatness, and a fitting farewell to a stage career that has illuminated British dance.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010