in ‘Xenos’ at Kennedy Center, Akram Khan dances to the end of the world

A rumination on identity, memory, death, life, and regeneration — a portrait of humanity captive to demons.

Watch Akram Khan dance and you’ll see the weight of the world and the gravitas of history coursing through his muscles, bones, sinews. The British-born dancer and choreographer with Bangladeshi heritage is one of the most acclaimed and innovative dancemakers today. Yet his first appearance at the Kennedy Center stage is his last in a leading role. At 47, Khan, who has had a prolific career as a dancer and choreographer drawing from his childhood training in the classical Indian dance form Kathak and his modern dance studies, will no longer take on major roles, like the 70-minute solo Xenos, which he performed in the Eisenhower Theater November 18 to 20, to an appreciative, if not sold-out, audience.

The Greek word for stranger or foreigner, Xenos is a masterwork for the globalized yet contentious early decades of the 21st century. Khan states in the program that it “is a reflection of how I feel about our world today … How can we as humans have such ability to create extraordinary and beautiful things from our imagination, and equally, our immense ability to create and commit violence and horrors beyond our imagination.”

Akram Khan in ‘Xenos.’ Photo by Jean Louis Fernandez.

As one enters the theater, the striking set by Mirella Weingarten captivates with its steep, dirt-colored incline with lengths of ropes hanging down. A pair of musicians, B C Manjunath on percussion and singer Aditya Prakash, seated on the floor in front of the sloping wall play with soulful ecstasy. As the lights dim, Khan stumbles out as if thrust unwillingly into this barren and inhospitable landscape. He drags a heavy rope to sounds of dogs barking and engines rumbling. Disoriented as lights flicker and the air seems to crackle.

Darkness. A match flame. Then a recorded voice intones: “Do not think this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world.”

And we are fully part of Khan’s world. Strangers in a strange land, embattled, war-torn, identity-less, lost. Khan is a lone soldier and he draws his embodied portrait of a battle-scarred [soldier] from the experience of more than 4 million non-white men who were mobilized by European and U.S. armies during World War I, our massively scaled first industrial war — and, alas, not our last. In reclaiming the lost histories of Brown and Black soldiers, Khan channels the Everyman — battle-fatigued, shell-shocked, homesick, scared, lost, lonely.

The physical language he favors fuses the virtuosic flatfooted syncopated stamping and the mimetic hand gestures — hastas — of Kathak, with the fully expressive body of contemporary dance. Sometimes he’ll whip out an uncountable series of dervish-like turns. At other points, he’ll indicate carrying a heavy sack, or lifting, aiming a cocking a rifle. After strapping on the traditional Indian dance ankle bells — ghungroo — he parses out a staccato rhythm — a dancer’s Morse code. Later he unwinds these strings of bells and wraps them across his body, enchaining himself like a captive soldier.

Khan’s ability to evoke worlds through his expressive dance language is simply unparalleled. His arms waft through the air feathery light, hands flutter and flick, and his torso undulates. Then as he climbs the sloping wall — perhaps walls of a battle trench — we note his strength, dexterity, and exertion, until he tumbles downward, crashing to the floor in a heap. Later a barrage of what appear to be rocks pour down the incline covering the stage with debris. Grenades maybe? Or remnants from bombed-out buildings? (I discovered they were pinecones, on closer inspection after the final bows.) Khan’s Everyman faces a series of Sisyphean tasks that emulate the repetitive mundanity of a soldier’s life.

Akram Khan and musicians in ‘Xenos.’ Photo by Jean Louis Fernandez.

Throughout a quintet of musicians — Manjunath and Prakash, joined by Nina Harries on double bass, Tamar Osborn on baritone sax, and Fra Rustumji on violin — appear atop the mountainous incline like ghostly apparitions — a memory, perhaps, or a heavenly signal of a higher power.

A single klieg light standing at the peak of the incline emits staticky voices and serves as a spotlight piercing the darkness. Air raids? Searchlights? More battlefield mayhem on the way?

Khan and his creative team, including Dramaturg Ruth Little and Writer Jordan Tannahill, have stitched together imagistic snapshots of a now-distant war that still reflect the fear and horror, the displacement and disenfranchisement it meted out to men who had no connections or entanglements with the warring nations. Rather these moments captured and re-created by Khan in his moving rumination on identity, memory, death, life, and regeneration all come together as a moving portrait of humanity captive to the demons it unleashes.

Akram Khan in ‘Xenos.’ Photo by Jean Louis Fernandez.

Xenos reflects on what it means to be human, but more necessary it reflects on what humanity has wrought when nations, civilizations, peoples usurp others in a single-minded quest to play God. Khan himself discovers the uncomfortable beauty in the wake of war’s carnage, barrenness and emptiness, a glowing wall, untoppled — ultimately the remains at the end, after Khan is physically spent, emotionally depleted by his 65-minute exertion, the music faded. The lights leave only a dim orange glow on the empty stage, the hill-like incline finally glowing like a Rothko painting. Khan danced us to the precipice.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission

Xenos, featuring Artistic Director/Choreographer/Performer Akram Khan, played November 18 to 20, 2021, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.

The digital program is here.

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An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.

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