Storytelling is at the heart of Akram Khan’s dance and performance. But what is most unusual about his narratives is their ability to take on huge, more universal meanings than the one he specifically deems as the story he is telling. This is especially true of Xenos, Khan’s latest and the work of his last solo performance tour. He appeared at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall this past weekend.

Akram Khan in Xenos
© Nicol Vizioli

Using a script written by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill and developed in concert with dramaturg Ruth Little, Khan’s hour-long performance was inspired by the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who fought for the English and their allies during World War I. Xenos tells the story of a kathak dancer conscripted as a soldier and subsequently caught in the death trap of no-man’s land. This desolate area of the war’s shifting frontlines is captured in a stunning set by Mirella Weingarten as a steeply raked hill running across center stage. Much of the essential action of the story takes place on this ridge.

While members of the audience take their seats, two musicians improvised on stage. Vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist BC Manjunath, whose rhythmic vocalese was a joy to hear, sat crosslegged in front of the sloped stage where heavy ropes curled down in a fan shape. Five empty chairs stood stage right and a swing, table and luggage stage left. Everything suggested domesticity, an event and a celebration. Suddenly Khan catapults onto the stage, dragging with him another heavy rope. He rises and begins to dance.

Khan is a powerfully built man and an emotionally intense dancer who gives all on stage. In kathak dancing (or any dance he chooses, for that matter) he is entirely convincing. His dance runs a wide gamut of expressive movement – arm gestures delicate, hand movements precise – at times as smooth as rushing water and at other times percussive. His feet beat rapidly, shaking the strings of bells wrapping his ankles. Then he turns and turns, elliptically and with the speed of a skater on ice. Sheer muscle defies gravity and the friction of feet on terra firma.

The musicians leave the stage, and the ropes begin to retract, dragging chairs, table, luggage, everything over the ridge of the set and out of sight – into nothingness. The lights darken.

From here on we are directed by the occasional whispered voice-over, characterized by the opening, “This is not war. This is the end of the world.” A succinct statement of the despair of those whose bodies and lives are forfeit to the cruelties of conflict and life. The slope of stage is spattered with dirt and the smell reaches into the auditorium. The musicians are now five, with the addition of violin, double-bass and saxophone to voice and percussion. The music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna has a driving, relentless quality, and the musicians are lit now and then, standing in a row on the ridge between here and nothingness. Under Michael Hull’s lighting design they seem like ethereal and divine beings, sometimes angels and at other times demons.

Khan struggles to scale the set, precariously leaning out from the ropes that turn this construction into a metaphoric mountain, to evoke the dream of a soldier traumatized by war. His dance shifts into contemporary modern dance, and objects on stage shift in meaning. The bells that were wound around his ankles momentarily take on the aspect of chains. An old-fashioned gramophone arrives on the ridge to recite the names of the dead fallen in the mud. Its horn morphs into a searchlight. A mound of dirt takes on the preciousness of home and rebirth, able to be shaped into the form of a human. Khan walks his fingers along his arm like a small man scaling the contours of a huge and unrecognizable god.

Eventually Khan recites his own inability to identify himself as he sits exhausted on the ridge of slope: “Whose war? Whose fire? Whose hand?” He crawls to the stage below: “I have killed. And been killed…is it not enough?”Above him the slope tilts up and hundreds of pinecones tumble after him.

Even if you don’t know the history of the colonial Indians of the First World War, Xenos reads as a study in extreme alienation, and the pain it causes not only in the mind but also in the body. It strives, ultimately, to teach us compassion. Although Khan says he will no longer perform after the end of his tour of Xenos, he will continue to choreograph for other performers and dancers, thankfully, and to ignite the stage with his boundless humanity.