Akram Khan gives body to the wretched of the earth

Akram Khan donne corps aux damnés de la terre

Photo: Tristram Kenton
In his solo “XENOS”, the choreographer and performer Akram Khan gives body to a soldier, a dancer of kathak thrown in the hell of the trenches of the First world War.

“History is written by those who dominate the world. You don’t learn in school that 1.4 million Indian nationals have had to fight for the british Empire during the First world War. By taking knowledge of their fate, I felt betrayed by the story, ” says the choreographer Akram Khan. In his solo XENOS, it gives body to one of these soldiers, a dancer of kathak thrown in the hell of the trenches.

Akram Khan has always loved to tell stories in her designs. But since the birth of his children, he strives to embody the trajectories of the forgotten of history : “In coming to the world, my children gave me birth : one understands that one is not the center of the world, it takes the measure of his otherness. “

From Prometheus to the unknown soldier

In concert with the playwright, australian-british Ruth Little and the playwright canadian Jordan Tannahill, Akram Khan explores in XENOS the sacrifice of the cipayes, these Indians of the colonial period forced to enrol in a western army : “A large number of them were not soldiers, many worked the land. Some were dancers at the court of the Nawab [ruler indian]. Suddenly, they found themselves immersed in the war on a foreign land and became themselves xenos [the stranger, in Greek]. “

More precisely, the solo depicts the mental trauma and physical, which was one of these soldiers : “the Whole piece is anchored in the concept of obusite [shell-shock], “says Akram Khan. The term today-unusual for obusite concerned all veterans of the Great War. But in the case of the cipayes, the sacrifice of the survivors fell further into oblivion, both in the United Kingdom than in India. As for the people who lost their lives in the conflict, most of their bodies were never repatriated.

Initially, the idea was to explore Greek mythology, and, in particular, the myth of Prometheus : “The story of Prometheus was the heart of the piece. Little by little, it became a metaphor in the journey of this soldier. Prometheus represents the empathy, the sacrifice, the gift of self… The acts of the soldier indian remind us that we all have, always, something of Prometheus. “

A dancer in the trenches

In XENOS, Akram Khan portrays a character close to him : “I am a dancer in indian classical at the court of the Nawab. The piece begins with a sort of memory, dream. I reminds me of where I come from, of how I used to dance, before being swallowed up by the war. “

The set design (Mirella Weingarten and, to the lighting, by Michael Hulls) offers also an immersion in a trench : “The stage design is a sort of installation. It is something that is very visual, like a painting by Rothko in tones of red, or a volcano, ” says Akram Khan.

Akram Khan donne corps aux damnés de la terre

Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

A concert of indian classical music, interpreted on stage by percussionist B. C. Manjunath and vocalist Aditya Prakash, opens the creation. The choreographer has also worked with the bassist Nina Harries, the saxophonist Tamar Osborn, violinist Clarice Rarity, as well as the composer Vincenzo Lamagna, with whom he had already collaborated on the occasion of two creations (Giselle and Until the Lions) : “We wanted to create a soundscape that reflects this that recalls the soldier, who draws as well in indian culture than in western culture. “Well, the soundtrack includes pieces of music of india, a song of war dating from the First world War and the Requiem of Mozart.

Throughout the solo, we hear in voiceover the text written by Jordan Tannahill. “Jordan is an author is amazing, who understands perfectly the theatre. It was first written many pages, and then attached himself to gradually refine the text so that it is the movement that tells the story. “

Because if Akram Khan is assistant the a team, the various elements of the XENOS are there to support the choreographic language. It feeds on the kathak and dear to the choreographer, this dance originating from north India, all in feet hammered, spiral, mudras (hand gestures) and stops dry. The gesture is very pollinated by the contemporary dance and other universe innervating what we call work state : “kathak, this are my roots, but I also have a body and a vocabulary of contemporary. Growing up, I loved Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson… And all that is in my body. In XENOS, there are theatrical moments that are a little chaplinesques. “

The dance as a vehicle for empathy

The movement is also imbued with the intention of letting it flush the mental and physical exhaustion of the body in war : “After having spent so much time in the mud of the trenches, in a cold piercing, with provisions very scarce, you are gradually robbed of all energy, all hope… The idea was to embody physically the vulnerability. My colleagues and I wanted to come up with something where I would no longer Akram Khan the dancer, but a broken body. “

In coming to the world, my children gave me birth: one understands that one is not the center of the world, it takes the measure of his otherness

— Akram Khan

But XENOS is also a question of the rise of the fear of the other : “This is a reaction to what is happening to us today as societies and civilization. We have witnessed phenomena similar to those that marked the debut of the First and of the Second world War. “

The choreographer considers that art can awaken empathy : “The body language is the most direct and sincere to communicate things. In general, art offers a space for reflection and provocation. For example, many visual artists create works that embody compassion and humility. For my part, I seek always the body. “

On tour for two years, XENOS will be the last solo created and performed by the choreographer, which brings the great fatigue of the soldiers of the traces left by the living : “The effects of time in the trenches, it’s a bit like life, says the choreographer, amused. As I am older, I realize that I get a lot, but I lose a lot too : family, memory, a certain ease in the body […] Dance fail me, but not the pain that comes with it. “Akram Kahn will continue to create. He is currently preparing a piece of group on environmental justice. Other stories, other ” wretched of the earth “.


Director, choreographer and performer : Akram Khan. At the théâtre Maisonneuve from 13 to 16 February. A dance workshop all public will be held Saturday, February 16, at 11 a.m. with Mavin Khoo, rehearsal director of the Akram Khan Company.