London (AFP) – Britain’s best-known choreographer Akram Khan has drawn on his roots for the final solo dance performance of his career, with a show that pays tribute to Indian soldiers who fought in World War I.
“Xenos” — which means stranger in Greek — opens with two musicians on stage, playing an interpretation of Indian music in a festive atmosphere.
Dressed for a performance, a dancer arrives, stumbling. The lights flicker, the music stalls and the dancer, a former soldier, is overcome by memories of war.
For the show, which he choreographed and stars in, the 43-year-old Khan returns to the traditional Indian classical dance kathak that he learned as a boy, and which has been present throughout his career.
“That is my home if you like — the most amount of time I spent in my life in one form was in kathak,” he told AFP.
But in place of the elegant grace of that dance, Khan’s movements are disrupted. His clothes and accessories become chains that tie his hands to his feet.
The musicians leave the stage, parts of the set disappear, as if sucked away into the darkness, and the dancer finds himself in the middle of no man’s land.
“This is not war — it is the ending of the world,” a voice says from offstage.
The performance was commissioned by 14-18 Now, the British organisation tasked with a programme of cultural events to mark the anniversary of the 1914-1918 war.
Almost 1.2 million Indians took part in the war, fighting for the British empire.
“I wanted to focus on them because their stories were never truly told,” said Khan, who was born in London to Bangladeshi parents.
“When I studied history, they were never there. I was pretty frustrated by that fact, that their story was omitted and they sacrificed their lives.”
– Physical battle –
Khan, who in 2012 snapped his Achilles tendon and feared his dance career was over, admits the show has tested him.
“It was a very tough process, physically. I am in a good place now, but through the process of creating I was really uninspired from my body,” he said.
“I know my body doesn’t respond the way it used to, so that’s a fight, in itself, and that has to do with time.”
Since he created his company in 2000, Khan has become a leading figure on the contemporary dance scene, and was awarded an MBE in 2005.
He has worked with world-class artists from ballerina Sylvie Guillem to visual artist Anish Kapoor, composer Steve Reich and singer Kylie Minogue.
He won an Olivier Award in 2012 for DESH, a highly personal solo show about being a child of immigrants.
One of the highlights of his career remains choreographing a section of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
– ‘Very scary time’ –
Khan’s work has grown gradually more political in nature, and he said “Xenos” was guided by his concerns about global attitudes today.
“The compass was the very state that we are in in the world right now, which is that of xenophobia, a fear toward the unknown, toward the strangers,” he said.
“This was the same symptoms just before the First World War, before the Second World War. We seems to be repeating ourselves, it is a very scary time.”
After finishing its run at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London this weekend, the show will go on tour internationally, including in France, Japan and Canada.
But his solo performance is not the end of Akram Khan, who says he is working on several projects, not all of them related to dance theatre.
As always, “I am shifting, I am expanding a little bit.”