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‘Xenos’ – Akram Khan’s lament for Indian soldier has a message for us all… (interview)

‘Xenos’ – Akram Khan’s lament for Indian soldier has a message for us all… (interview)

His last full length solo piece is beautiful as it is haunting and searches out a sprituality in us all…

DANCE icon Akram Khan gets on stage tonight (August 16) to perform ‘Xenos’ to the people of Scotland for the first time.

“It’s the beginning of a transformation,” he told, not long after its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells in June this year.

“For the first time in my life, I feel we should give the audience tissues,” he said, smiling wryly.

“It’s about death and rebirth, it’s about so many things, and the situation we are in now with xenophobia.

“We all feel separated from something – from politics. It’s absolutely political,” he added emphatically, talking about ‘Xenos’.

ACV meets Akram Khan

Xenos’ is Khan’s last outright full-length solo piece as a dancer, so it’s an important work on many different levels.

It is his response to the world around him, its current ugliness and billowing spite and hate.

The production enjoyed its world premiere in Athens, Greece in February and essentially, it is a story suffused with the myths of ancient Greek.

Many critics believe ‘Xenos’ came out of ‘Dust’ – a composition about the First World War and commissioned by the English National Ballet. He first performed this piece with Tamara Rojo (artistic director and lead principle dancer) in April 2014 but Khan countered this when we spoke to him.

“‘Xenos’ is from Prometheus – I wanted to work with Greek mythology – predominantly I’ve worked with Indian mythology.”

The Prometheus story is instructive in Greek mythology; the figure of Prometheus is the god who formed us from clay and gave us fire and is often associated with intelligence and progress. However to the god of gods, Zeus, he transgressed and thus condemned Man to a cycle of hope and then despair.

Khan said he was greatly influenced by the Prometheus story and wanted to connect it to the First World War and suffering of men who left their homeland to fight in the fields of their colonial masters and perished there. One estimate states 74,000 Indian soldiers died and as many 1.3 million men fought for the British in World War One.

Many returned broken, traumatised and often were ignored and abandoned. The Independence Movement began to gain momentum – with some of the energy for it emanating from men who served the British Crown and saw how little it really cared for them.

“A lot of articles started appearing in the run up to the 14-18 Now (a commission set up to commemorate the sacrifice of all during the conflict and the main backers of ‘Xenos’), and I remembered feeling frustrated and upset. I didn’t know about it. There was no recognition of colonial soldiers and history is written by the masters because they are the winners. It really struck a chord with me – a lot of my work has been about identity.”

This is a hugely collaborative piece – for the first time, Khan worked with acclaimed Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, whose story sets the scene and the unfurling narrative.

“It’s really a collective effort of some very special individuals – even though there is only one person on stage,” pointed out Khan.

He met Tannahill when he was in Canada and was impressed by his outlook.

“I was inspired – he is a wise man in a young man’s body, I was really taken by his thinking process,” explained Khan.

Along with dramaturg Ruth Little the piece started to come together last year and while they started with a big canvas, they saw that through a single soldier they could tell a difficult and painful story.

“He is a dancer and in one of the scenes he is a dancer in the court or at an event and these are memories.”

Those memories get buried under the rubble of war – this man, our hero, if you will, is being erased from history. Khan and his musicians give him life and joy, but it is temporary and the reality of his plight overwhelms everything else.

Khan is the best-known contemporary and Indian classical dancer in Britain today. His recognition reached a populist zenith when he composed a section of dance for the spectacular opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012 and he and his outfit, Akram Khan Company, continue to perform around the world.

He grew up in Wimbledon, South London uncertain what to do with himself and at odds- at least in his teens and early adulthood – with his Bangladeshi-origin restaurateur father, who wanted him to excel academically. His mother, he told acv, was the one to encourage him to dance and engage with culture; and his long training with a renowned Indian Kathak master and his own determination shaped the talent we see today.

Reminiscing about his entry into dance as a professional, he told “There was no such thing as a career in dance – for us (Mavin Khoo, a friend, and another Indian classical dance specialist in bharatanatyam), it wasn’t about money, it was a matter of life an death, it was what made us happy and what we wanted to give our lives to – Mavin and I were interested in excellence.”

Xenos’ is in some parts a tribute to his mother but it is also a recognition of new phase in his life.

He confesses that his body was not what it was, and the challenges and adventure of a being a father to two children, aged three and five, have also played a strong part in him deciding to call it a day as a solo performer.

“I will still be performing ‘Xenos’ till 2020,” he reminded acv as the production will continue to tour.

His five-year-old-daughter is already playing a part in his continuing evolution as an artist, he revealed to acv.

“She loves Radiohead and Bjork and Nick Cave and Janis Joplin. She just chooses it from my phone – she’s got good taste,” he conceded with evident parental pride.

There are dark clouds on the European horizon especially, but ‘Xenos’ is a reminder that in many ways our fates as humans on this planet are intertwined, and that life is both beautiful and fragile and we must seek out the good in all, to truly progress and prosper.

“To move is to resist and that is why dance is important. It’s a metaphor – and the moment we stop, we die.”

All images except portrait where indicated: ©Jean Louis-Fernandes for Akram Khan Company

Xenos – Edinburgh International Festival (today and tomorrow) , Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9FT
Tel: +44(0)131 529 6000

Akram Khan also presents ‘Gnosis’ on August 19-21 and a mass outdoor event, ‘Kadamati’ on August 22 as part of the Edinburgy International Festival which ends on August 27
For more on these click:


Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22, Curve Theatre, Rutland Street, Leicester LE1 1SB
Tel: 0116 242 3595

Then Ottawa and Toronto, Canada (October 11-13 & October 18-21 respectively)
Then October 31 to March 3 2019 – New York, US; Cologne, Germany; Montreal, Canada; and California, see for precise dates and link to book…

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture