Dance interview: Akram Khan on Xenos, his WWI-inspired show for the Edinburgh International Festival

Akram Khan tells Kelly Apter why his role in the blisteringly paced and inventive Xenos will be his last as a dancer in a full-length production

Akram Khan in Xenos PIC: © Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan in Xenos PIC: © Jean Louis Fernandez

A freshly washed costume hangs against the wall, ankle bells lie silent on a nearby table, and flowers and good luck cards festoon the dressing room. As I wait for Akram Khan to arrive, the distant sound of musicians tuning up is piped through the intercom, adding to the sense of anticipation.

In a few hours’ time, Khan will step onto the stage at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre to perform Xenos, his final full-length show as a dancer. The costume on the wall will spin and weave with his body, the bells on the table will match the percussive pounding of his feet, and yet another indelible mark will be left on his audience.

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Because that’s what Khan does: makes you remember him. It was May 2002 when I saw him dance for the first time, but it may as well have been yesterday, the memory is so strong. I took my partner along – a dance newbie – and he was so blown away I invited him to see another dance company a month later. I’ll never forget the disappointment on his face as we left the theatre: “They’re not all like Akram Khan, then?” No, they’re not.

But this August will be the last time I see Khan dance. Xenos will tour internationally so the end isn’t quite in sight for him yet – but for his audience, it’s time to say goodbye. At the age of 43, Khan is shifting his emphasis to choreography, creating work for others rather than himself. He’ll still train and dance in his back garden studio, and we may well see him pop up in group pieces – but that spellbinding, stage-dominating, attention-grabbing soloist we know and love is hanging up his bells.

For us onlookers, little has changed – Khan can still deliver lightning-fast turns, throw out his arms as if they’re not attached to his body and stamp his feet with authority. But for him, the young boy who copied Michael Jackson videos, danced between tables in his father’s restaurant, and performed his own unique blend of Indian Kathak and contemporary dance, is no more.

“I think he’s abandoned my body,” says Khan. “I feel my mind is dancing now. And that became really clear when I was choreographing Giselle for English National Ballet – I realised that I don’t need my body, that my mind can dance through other people’s bodies.

“So I’ll continue to train, but for myself. And I’ll continue to do smaller projects, because I need to stay in touch, to remind myself what it feels like on stage, otherwise how can I relate to the dancers I’m working with? But I was so excited every second of working on Giselle, and my team could feel that something had shifted in me. That’s when I knew that Xenos was going to be my last.”

Greek for “stranger” or “foreigner”, Xenos is inspired by the legend of Prometheus and the untold story of the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War. Those who survived the trenches returned home to discover that, post-colonisation, India had little interest in men who had fought on behalf of the British. None of which Khan was taught in school – was he surprised to learn about India’s involvement?

“It came as a surprise in the sense that I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t study that in history,’” says Khan. “But at the same time it was no surprise at all, because history is always written from one side, predominantly from the Anglo-Saxon perspective, and the winners will always tell the story.”

Although Khan and the rest of the Xenos creative team absorbed themselves in the past for this production, delving back centuries into Greek mythology and 100 years to World War One, Khan talks with real concern about the show’s modern-day relevance.

“I think it’s obvious in the sense that we’re living in a time of xenophobia, unfortunately,” he says. “And it’s the same set of symptoms that were there before the First and Second World Wars, which is very frightening. Whether we’re white, black or brown, we all know what it means to be a stranger because we’re all, to a certain extent, powerless because of the government’s actions.”

By the end of Xenos, Khan’s skin is caked in clay, mud and chalk dust, the incredible set he dances on – a giant moving hillside – dirty and rubble-filled. Internally, his character has gone from passionate Indian dancer to warring soldier to troubled soul and beyond. It’s quite a journey, and one which we join him on every step of the way.

Thinking back over all the times I’ve watched Khan dance, and how utterly absorbed his audience becomes, I ask what’s it like for him during those moments on stage. “When I was younger, I flowed in and out as a dancer and a choreographer,” he explains. “I would step outside myself while I was performing, especially in the early stages of a creation just after the premiere – I’d be thinking ‘Ah, that should be done differently’, so I wasn’t 100 per cent immersed.

“But now, I don’t know what I’m doing or what changes I’ve made, because I’m making those changes while I’m immersed in the character. So every night it’s slightly different.”

Only when Khan is dancing classical Kathak does he switch off completely from the creative process and just dance, claiming it’s “more about ritual than choreography”. We get a glimpse of that at the start of Xenos, when he is joined on stage by five musicians, harking back to his Kathak roots. And it’s testament to Khan’s success that his “confusion” (as he calls it) of Indian classical and contemporary dance is now acclaimed by people on both sides of the dance divide.

“At the beginning the classical world didn’t really accept me, they were like ‘What the hell are you doing?’,” recalls Khan. “That was hurtful at the start, but it’s funny how that’s changed – now they’re excited to be attached to my name. They realised that audiences who come to my shows don’t necessarily go and see classical work – but they’re being exposed to it with me. Like the opening of Xenos, when the audience walks in there is classical Indian music playing.”

This August in Edinburgh, audiences will get a bit of everything from Khan: Kathak, contemporary dance and choreography. Not only will he perform Xenos, but hundreds of local dancers are due to congregate outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse on 22 August to perform Khan’s large-scale work Kadamati, also inspired by the First World War.

Creating the piece has been “beautiful and exciting,” says Khan, proving that he no longer has a burning desire to be centre-stage – just to be near it.

“I think the danger is if you stop moving, either in the mind or in the body, death comes close,” he says. “You do what you do, and the

moment you stop doing that, you have to shift that energy onto something else, you have to be constantly moving.”

Xenos, Festival Theatre, 16-18 August; Kadamati, Palace of Holyroodhouse, 22 August, 0131-473 2000/