Dance review: Xenos, Festival Theatre

Akram Khan ends the performance caked in dirt. Picture: Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan ends the performance caked in dirt. Picture: Jean Louis Fernandez
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Akram Khan has spent his entire career in the spotlight. No matter how many people were dancing on stage, it was him you looked at. Now that he is about to step away from performance, shifting his focus to choreographing for others, it seems fitting that Khan is not the only star of Xenos.

Xenos, Festival Theatre (*****)

Five musicians, standing aloft the stage like gods overseeing the action, are superb. But it is Mirella Weingarten’s set design that gets equal billing. As Khan pushes his body to the brink of exhaustion, ending the show caked in clay and mud having been to hell (and not quite back), it is Weingarten that turns this solo into a duet.

At first, the stage is busy with paraphernalia: cushions, chairs, a swing, the trappings of ordinary life. Khan, too, is dressed as an Indian civilian – a wedding dancer who, backed by two on-stage musicians, delivers his trademark Kathak. When Michael Hulls’s expertly designed lighting starts to flicker, we sense despair creeping in.

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As Khan’s fragile mind slowly fragments, echoes of the horrors he endured during the First World War begin to dominate. The furniture disappears, dragged away up a steep hill by ropes, leaving a stage strewn with dirt and dust for Khan to navigate.

Dramaturg Ruth Little worked closely with Khan, to fuse the real-life tale of an Indian soldier (one of more than a million who fought in the Great War, only to return to a colonial India that cared little for their service) with the myth of Prometheus. The result is, in a word, epic.

Khan’s movement, once so tethered to his Kathak/contemporary fusion, is now almost more about acting. The fast-paced spins and slicing arms are still there – and are magnificent when they come – but this swansong extracts so much more from within him.