Akram Khan: Xenos at Sadler’s Wells
Over a million Indian soldiers fought overseas in World War I, of whom 62,000 died and 67,000 were wounded. Akram Khan uses classical kathak (a form of Indian dance traditionally performed by travelling storytellers) as well as contemporary dance, musical effects and sparse yet powerful words to explore the experience of Indian soldiers fighting in the war in Xenos.
“Xenos” means “stranger” in Greek, which sums up the feeling of this performance. This is a story of soldiers sent to a strange land, where they are treated as strangers and where they will likely die for someone else’s war. Everything is alien, confusing and deafening. Moments of calm are sliced by jolting, loud noises or unexpected blackouts.
The show begins almost happily, with drums and chanting. Suddenly, the lights flicker and shut off, leaving the audience in suffocating silence and darkness until one of the musicians lights a match. Khan has chains around his ankles, which are used to harmonise with the music but also serve as a symbol of fetters, which he pulls at, attempting to escape.
The stage contains a slope with dangling ropes attached to chairs and cushions below. In one striking scene, the contents of the stage are dragged up the slope by their ropes, chairs falling and slowly being pulled out of sight. Khan tries to save them, before disappearing himself: his home is being pulled away, and he may never get it back.
Music is used as a soundtrack, but also to create an ominous, drowning effect that heightens the sense of confusion and oppression. At one point, a low beat grows louder and louder. It feels like the sound is going right through the viewer, so one doesn’t know where the heartbeat starts and the beat ends. It is uncomfortable, but also so powerful in the way it creates a sense of shared feeling between the audience and Khan. Sudden, loud gunshots make the audience shudder. The lights flicker and static noise is heard as they are plunged into darkness.. At other times, the sound is so shrill that it hurts as it makes it torturous “blings”. It’s impossible to relax, because one doesn’t know what’s going to happen next
Khan, who is the sole dancer in the show, gives an unforgettable performance. Some of the most noteworthy scenes happen when parts of his body appear not to belong to him, such as when his arm wriggles like a snake and he watches it, seemingly powerless to stop it. His dance conveys such a depth of human anguish: in one moment he spins lethargically, almost out of energy, then speeds up, mania overtaking him as he circles out of control, before, finally, he slows, the full horror of the situation zapping his energy.
Xenos is a powerful and devastating show about some of the worst parts and experiences of humanity. Now that there are no living survivors of WWI, it is up to us not to forget its victims – all its victims. The performance also forces its audience to experience the oppressive confusion and absurdity of war as a whole. It shows a world in disarray, where death is everywhere and blood splatters the landscape. It is heavy, it is sometimes painful and it is vitally important lest we forget what humanity is capable of.
Xenos is at Sadler’s Wells from 1st December until 4th December 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: