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Akram Khan’s Xenos review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘a work of incredible potency’

Akram Khan in Xenos at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Tristram Kenton Akram Khan in Xenos at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Akram Khan claims that this will be his final solo work. At 43, the artist/performer – dancer/choreographer seems too limiting – confesses that he was “not inspired by my own body anymore” in the making of Xenos. I beg to differ.

Xenos (Greek for Outsider or Foreigner) is a work of incredible potency, of emotional and cultural depth that sings and surges with the confidence of an artist at the peak of his powers.

Both a tribute to and a lament for the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in the trenches of the First World War, it expands beyond its original intent to interrogate the purpose of humanity in an increasingly inhumane world.

Two musicians are already on stage performing a mournful lament when the lights sputter and fritz to the distant thunder of artillery. The space is dominated by a huge curving slope festooned with white ropes; chairs, a low table and cushions are scattered around beneath. Khan enters as if thrown on by an invisible hand.

Working through traditional kathak dance, spinning, stamping and carving the air with elaborate hand gestures – he collapses and rises, propelled by the sudden bursts of sound beyond the music.

Unwrapping his strings of kathak bells they become the hobbling chains of a prisoner, or the strings of a marionette as everything on stage is slowly, eerily hauled up the slope to disappear over the top.

Small avalanches of earth tumble down the the slope from above; Khan picks up a handful and squeezes it like Prometheus to make a Man represented by his walking fingers. “Sapiens…sapiens” is repeated, etching the air with irony.

Khan has us now in his grip. Hands eternally moving, scooping, plucking, squeezing, folding almost as if beyond his control he moves into his own developed style of contemporary dance, climbing the slope, balancing along the ridge, sliding down; interacting with the earth, the five musicians who appear high above the stage and a horn gramophone from where a roll call of Indian names emerges, although “Half of them are already dead.”

Lit from within, the brass horn moves of its own accord shining its beam like a searchlight. It reminded my of the Pixar animated desk lamp – a rare moment of levity in a dark piece.

Lighting designer Michael Hulls doesn’t light the stage so much as irradiate it. Cool greens and pinks shine like marble as a silhouetted Khan turns into a living shadow puppet; the light morphs from the rusting, autumnal colours of battle fire, the heat of molten lava into the red rock dust of the Sedona desert as Khan moves into the final stages. “I have killed. And been killed…is it not enough?” as he writhes in the convulsive throes of the mortally wounded.

Xenos deserves to take its place alongside Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria as a tribute to the war dead and a cri de coeur to salvage the remnants of our humanity. Magnificent.

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Akram Khan’s farewell to solo performance leaves an ineradicable legacy