Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: June 7th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells, May 30

Xenos

Akram Khan in XENOS (photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the First World War centenary, XENOS is billed as a commemoration of an Indian soldier in the trenches representing the more than a million mobilized from what was then a colony of the British Empire. But it is also billed as the final full-length solo Akram Khan will choreograph on himself. So what, or who, is XENOS actually commemorating? Sarah Crompton titles her program article, ‘A new myth’ in which she discusses with Khan the making of XENOS, its creative components and the summation of his career. She concludes that the new myth is ‘to help everyone remember.’ Remember what? Both Khan’s role and the production itself are equivocal in their response.

Even though Khan was born in a south London borough to Bangladeshi parents, his dancing roots are in his classical kathak training, which makes his portrayal of ‘X’ — who dramaturg Ruth Little describes as ‘no man and everyman, the unknown and the eternal soldier, alone in a foreign land…’ — unquestionably poignant. The opening of XENOS (meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’) is a masterful depiction of ‘X’ at the convergence of dance and conflict. As we arrive in the auditorium of Sadler’s Wells, vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist BC Manjunath are seated on stage performing a classical concert unperturbed by our lack of attention. Mirella Weingarten’s set is a study in absence: empty, dusty chairs, an abandoned swing and a low table covered in a fine layer of earth below a string of bare light bulbs and an array of ropes leading up an incline towards the back. It is a deserted interior scene that anticipates the passing of the present into a bleak future. It is only with an amplified electrical short circuit and a temporary blackout that the audience becomes attentive and subsides into silence; the concert continues and Khan enters as if discharged violently from a traumatic past. The music serves to revive him and he begins a haltingly remembered kathak dance; at times Manjunath has to prompt him with the chanted rhythms and the three men build up a haunting image of life interrupted and changed forever. Khan is in a sense playing himself, remembering past glories from a conflicted present, his mature body reliving what it could once do so effortlessly. More electrical short circuits and an extended black out lead us to a plangent space and time where the snake-like ropes draw Khan and all the furniture inexorably up the slope as if by an outside force — the original tug of war — and over the top.

The parapet remains throughout XENOS as the locus of the trenches and of Khan’s place in this desolate world; he connects a rope like a field cable to what appears to be a gramophone to hear a crackly recording of the names of fallen Indian soldiers, one of whom died laying cables in the mud. The horn of the gramophone later becomes a searchlight, but with these surreal allusions the connection to the First World War begins to veer off into the discursive themes of myth and evolution. Khan invokes Prometheus, the Greek Titan who is credited with the creation of man from clay and who stole fire from Zeus to facilitate the development of civilization — and its unintended consequence, war. Khan’s depiction of evolution seems to cover the period from Mowgli to the Mahabharata, subtly shifting the focus of XENOS from the representation of colonial ‘X’ into the current myth of Khan himself. It’s as if ‘X’ has offloaded his ‘otherness’ and has returned home, which is now in Wimbledon.

In the Crompton interview, Khan acknowledges an Indian academic who had thought remembrance was ‘a white thing’. This notion had spurred Khan to delve into the archives of Indian involvement in the First World War, which in turn imbued his empathetic memorialization of ‘X’ at the beginning of XENOS. However, any further attempt at excavating the memory of these forgotten soldiers from oblivion is lost in the meandering rhetoric and the ‘whiteness’ of this lavish monument of a production.

By the time lighting designer Michael Hulls, composer Vincenzo Lamagna and sound engineer Julien Deloison introduce that glorious go-to expression of sorrowful beauty, Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem mass, blasted from a Schechtian gallery of musicians suspended in light above the stage, the commemoration has turned fully on Kahn: the end of the war has become conflated with the end of his solo career.


Akram Khan, Until the Lions

Posted: January 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan, Until the Lions

Akram Khan Company, Until the Lions, January 19, Roundhouse, London

Ching-Yien Chien, Akram Khan and Christine-Joy Ritter in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Ching-Yien Chien, Akram Khan and Christine-Joy Ritter in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” Augustine of Hippo

We do not encounter performances in isolation and so to write about them without context tells only part of the story. Earlier on the same day I visited two exhibitions: WOMEN: New Portraits by Annie Leibovitz at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station and For They That Sow The Wind by Julian Charrière at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art.

As an architect of mood Khan (and his creative collaborators) clearly frames our arrival into the Roundhouse with a low grumbling, electronic rumbling soundtrack and a 15m wide tree trunk splatted across the stage. Fissures run through the trunk and act as a future echo for the scenographic finale that lingers in the mind long after you’ve left the auditorium.

Until the Lions (the performance) is distilled from a collection of poetry by Karthika Nair (of the same name) who amplified the narrative and shone a light on some of the minor female character’s from the original hindu epic The Mahabharata (in which a teenage Khan performed in Peter Brook’s seminal performance). In 1966 the playwright Tom Stoppard excavated two minor characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and injected them with life and framed them within a play of their own. The process of ekphrasis is one that Nair practices regularly and she’s previously worked with Khan as a writer on DESH:

“Akram is not interested in my poems as poems, he is very clear that it is the story or mood, the content which he will mould into his language or languages for stage: movement and visuals and music.”

Khan and dramaturg Ruth Little attempted to stretch and deliver a slender narrative of male domination and female vengeance over 60 minutes with three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Yien Chien and Christine-Joy Ritter) and four musicians (Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Vincenzo Lamagna) with little success.

Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” Charles de Gaulle

My ears feasted on a driving and insistent live percussive score — an evocative vocal intensity, bordering on the shamanic, intoxicated me with a fervour, tension and delicious agitation; but my eyes nibbled on unimaginative repetition, 2D characters who didn’t want to connect with me and chasms of flabby, empty space. I felt little sense of drama, found no invention or choreographic hunger and left with a jarring sense of disappointment at this mismatched marriage of sound and vision.

There were too many examples of circumference running and walking which drained any pace and sagged any momentum being created by the urgent and cohesive soundtrack. As the performance developed I saw little nous or demonstration of the craft required for performances in the round. The centre of the stage is the weakest point for a performer as it’s here that half the audience cannot see the front of the body or face; yet Khan focused so much choreographic and illuminated action on this section of the stump.

However, there was a moment (around two thirds of the way through) when I felt an equality; the compositional and choreographic power aligned as Ritter began to take on a new form to vanquish her male nemesis. Here she writhed, scuttled and possessed arachnid qualities, totally inhabiting the movement, whilst my ears were possessed with voodoo screeches and relentless twitchy beats — it was in this moment I was magnetised; I zoomed in and wanted more. As a performer Khan was consistently rigid, restive and demonstrated little Kathak fluidity and I couldn’t understand the intention behind his own choreographic choices as it served only to highlight the lack of depth in the characters and narrative.

A lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing” William Shakespeare

Maybe Khan should follow in the footsteps of Lloyd Newson who recently announced he was taking a break. We know there is richness to be mined in Khan’s older work as exemplified by Chotto Desh (a work based on Desh but made for young people and expertly directed by Sue Buckmaster) which had no creative input from Khan and is currently touring under the banner of his company. The process of ekphrasis is already being practiced by Karthika Nair; why doesn’t Khan offer existing work to other choreographers and let them re-author it? An artist cannot constantly produce success after success and should not be beholden to a dance industry which demands new and more; otherwise fields become fallow, trees cannot grow and kittens will not become lions.

The Leibovitz portraits of Misty Copeland, Aung San Suu Kyi and others provided examples of female intimacy, power and drama that were authored by a woman whilst Charrière offered adventurous interpretations of how to merge past and present. Until the Lions explored similar territories and with the dance industry undergoing some very public reflection on the division of opportunities, commissions and performances between men and women it’s important to see how other artists are examining a similar terrain.