A dance back from the brink of hell

On any sensible list of performers you must see before you die, Akram Kahn would figure prominently. And if, as he’s said, Xenos is to be his last solo creation, then Torontonians may feel some urgency to see the show, running through October 21 at the Bluma Appel theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre.

Xenos (a Greek word meaning stranger), a complex collaboration of the kind that has earned Khan’s company kudos for innovation, is a tribute to the 1.3 million troops from colonial India who fought, with little acknowledgement of their sacrifice, in World War I.

The 65-minute piece, which has Kahn performing with musicians and vocalists, is spell-binding; it transcends the language of kathak and contemporary dance and words spoken in Hindi or whispered English, to go straight to the heart. Such is the power of Kahn’s expressive and taxing performance.

The subject matter becomes a container for themes of memory, loss and belonging. Xenos is history as it might have been written by the foot soldiers instead of the generals.

Kahn’s character is emphatically alone, confused, battered and bruised but as Xenos unfolds, he becomes a universal figure, a man or a woman, a father, a son, a brother, connected to all other beings, alive or remembered or persisting on a spiritual plane.

Vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist B C Manjunath are playing on stage as the audience gathers. It’s as if we’ve entered their salon and their ease has the effect of lulling us before the onslaught to come.

Akram Khan, born in London in 1974, to Bangladeshi parents, has been a Kathak dancer since he was seven. His unique style of dance seamlessly fuses Kathak and contemporary technique, but in Xenos we see him first in long white tunic, rows of ankle bells wrapped below his calves, doing what looks like pure Kathak – erect, confident, mesmerizing.

The dancer, pulling a long thick cord, like the rope that holds a big ship at anchor, begins to unwind, symbolically untying the ankle bells and attaching them to other ropes lying coiled upon a steep ramp that could be a hill or the slope of a trench. All this to the sound of bombs blasting and the overheard words, “this is not war; it’s the ending of the world.”

He is a man confused, swirling in a psychic tumult. There’s a blackout and when Kahn next appears he’s in a short soldier’s tunic, heavily soiled by the earth that has been sliding down the ramp at him.

A huge metal horn of what could be a gramophone, a megaphone or the speaker of an old radio, beckons, emitting scratchy sounds after the dancer links rope to rope to get a current flowing.

Kahn struggles, climbing, crawling, prostrate, supine, desperately gathering up dirt in his hands – a man abandoned by his culture, embroiled in the war to end all wars.

A violinist (Clarice Rarity), a double bass player (Nina Harries), a saxophonist (Tamar Osborn), percussionist and  vocalist appear in a rectangle of dim light suspended above the ramp. They play and sing and will ultimately serve as a heavenly chorus. Below them, the soldier struggles in a rising crescendo of battle sounds. Kahn is now stripped to the waste, covered in dirt, wasted.

It would be a shame to give away the spectacular finale. Suffice it to say this unknown soldier, this formidable dancer, has created an indelible memory.


Directed, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan

Presented by Canadian Stage

Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, October 18 to 21

Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez


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