Lawrence Olivier Award-winning Bangladeshi-English choreographer Akram Khan brought his latest—and last—solo dance production Xenos to Hong Kong on 15 and 16 November. Meaning “stranger” in Greek, Xenos—commissioned by the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary—has haunted global audiences by evoking war images through dance.
Xenos is informed by the story of Prometheus, the mythical Greek Titan who, once having created mankind from clay, defied the gods and stole fire and gave it to the mortals. For this, he was bound to a rock, where his liver was eaten daily by an eagle sent by Zeus, only for it to grow back overnight.
Through dance, Khan reflects on the origin of mankind, as well as the thin line between civilization (which encompasses intelligence and invention) and destruction ironically brought by technology. In Xenos, a colonial Indian soldier (the “xénos” on this particular battlefield) falls into his own shell-shocked dream of being trapped in no-man’s land, thereby digging up the buried historical trauma of WWI. The intervening century notwithstanding, Khan traps the contemporary audience in the nightmare through his dance—using a visual language to remind the world of the million or more Indian soldiers who fought for their British colonizers.
Khan is known for combining contemporary dance with Kathak, a classical Indian art form. The two could hardly be more different. Contemporary dance emphasizes the liberty to create and explore bodily expressions whereas the Indian folk dance is made up of hasta mudra (hand gestures), chakaar (spins) and tatkaar (footwork) traditionally set and passed down.
Although formally trained Khan later received ballet and modern dance, Khan was introduced to Kathak at a young age by his mother, who, forbidden by her father, secretly learnt and adapted the dance moves. His fusion of the two forms and traditions is both a connection across eras and cultures, and a means to express, adapt and survive.
In Xenos, the choreography is significant and symbolic in portraying how the xenos finds his own body becoming a stranger’s shell. Khan initially spins and steps to distinctly rhythmed songs and music. But the highly-controlled, precise, firm and strong dance quickly plunges into frantic body movements of contemporary dance. Through this transition, the xenos reexamines this “stranger’s body” which behaves in incomprehensible and unfamiliar ways than when commanded and controlled (as represented by how the dancer is being dictated by rhythmic music). For instance, what seems to be a lighthearted gesture of walking the index and middle fingers, one that children often mindlessly make to suggest the strides of an adventurer, becomes an “ant-sy” image. Khan wildly stares at the unstoppable fingers that crawls on his arm while his other hand attempts to stop them. It is as if his limbs are detached from his brain.
The theme of disconnection resonates throughout and grows historically charged. The xenos must snap out of his natural emotions of fear and confusion to salute at each sound of a whistle at command, aims his gun at a target, and struggles to pull himself up at the firing of bullets—all suggestive of how Imperial orders are imposed on the body of the colonial soldier, an abuse or power by the colonizers who use “xenoi” as the means to their military ambition.
Apart from his suggestive choreography, what successfully carries Xenos’ criticism of war across to the contemporary audience is the libretto. Khan grounds his work on history and draws on actual materials such as a wounded Indian sepoy’s letter home—“This is not war. It is the ending of the world.” Khan invites the audience into the internal world of the traumatized sepoy through the deafening original music. Performed by an ensemble of string, percussion, brass and voice, the tense music remains loud throughout, overwhelming the audience’s senses and creating a disturbing experience.
Furthermore, Khan visualizes the disturbed psyche of the xenos by working with set designer Mirella Weingarten to create a series of surreal scenes. Literally roped to a phonograph that blasts “voices in the mud”, painful recordings of dead soldiers, the xenos fails to unknot himself. But the ropes are simultaneously the umbilical cords by which the xenos can climb up from the mud to be reborn with a strange new understanding and memory of humanity.
Rising from the mud is a shirtless Khan smudged with dirt, a complete contrast to the civilized beginning with structured choreography and clean clothes. Through Khan’s explosive dance, highly symbolic dreamscape, and a forceful overload of emotional and sensory stimulation, the performance of a mere 90 minutes retells an epic of humanity and war.
After Hong Kong, Xenos will be staged in Lisbon, Paris and Clermont-Ferrand. Having created uncompromising narratives that touch on variously themed human experiences since 1999, it can’t be more apt for Khan to end his solo dance career with Xenos, his version of the Prometheus katha (“story” in Vedic Sanskrit) about repetitive suffering of mankind in a war that transcends historical boundaries.
A poet, actress and travel writer on the side, Zabrina Lo is Assistant Editor at Zolima CityMag, a Hong Kong-based magazine covering the city’s heritage, wildlife, arts and culture.