Khan’s projects are his journey of self-discovery which we are privileged to witness. Xenos is a must-see for historians.
One event that took place in the U.K. in remembrance of the centenary of the first World War tragedy was Akram Khan’s Xenos, which premiered in Athens in February of 2018. Xenos is meant to be Khan’s last full-length solo performance. And it is undoubtedly his best work.
Akram Khan is an ever thinking, ever questioning artist. One could say he is a philosopher who uses human body as a conveyor of meaning. With Xenos, as he states in the pamphlet, he has pledged to become a purposeful artist. But Khan does not project some vague liberal messages on stage. Rather, the themes he explores and presents to the audience are born out of self-reflection. It is this search for the self, and his unique concoction of delivery, that makes Khan a distinguished, one-of-a-kind choreographer. And we, the audience, are privileged to witness Khan’s journey of self-discovery.
A Bangladeshian British, Khan is committed to exploring his South Asian root. He not only includes kathak in his pieces, but also collaborates with leading South Asian artists like Anish Kapoor and Farooq Chaudhry. But traditional traits never overpower Khan’s work. With much finesse Khan manages to execute the very difficult task of combining what is culturally specific and what is universal, what is traditional and what is timeless.
This is demonstrated most clearly, and chillingly, in Xenos. Xenos tells a story of an Indian dancer-turned-soldier. Building on the mythology of Prometheus, its overarching theme highlights ‘men’s cyclical return to conflict and destruction’.
Truthfully, the story of the protagonist alone can sufficiently carry this ethical message without the umbrella of the Greek mythology. This is because the piece is replete with magnificent symbolism of life and death. From Khan’s blowing off a lonesome candle light, the cold steel wall that separates the present and the unknown as well as the character’s memory and the battlefield, to the body’s enmeshing with mud, Xenos seamlessly narrates the unfolding of events and the suffering of this innocent Indian dancer’s life that the war forcefully brought along. Every moment of Xenos grips the audience. Its stage is minimalistic yet powerful. The five musicians who stand facing us remind us, in my opinion, faint and distant memories that continue to breath in our mind. But the most impactful moment comes in the finale. As the tumbling stones inundate the stage and Khan’s dirt-speckled body faces this crumbling demolition, audiences are awakened and reminded of the repercussions of our collective actions and the futility of human violence.
But Khan’s Xenos digs deeper. Literally. In fact, the production of Xenos bears many similarities with historian’s quest for truth. One of the perennial questions historians grapple with appears from the welcome page of the pamphlet; the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, Alistair Spalding, poses—‘who writes history? does everyone get the recognition they deserve?’ Khan is concerned with the anonymous, intensely personal, yet wide-spread, passive condition of the approximately 1.5 million South Asian soldiers whose stories remain buried. In short, Khan is interested in the so-called subaltern story. His source? The British Library.
With the help of the dramaturg Ruth Little, Khan tuned in on the voices of those Indian soldiers who fought and died on foreign soil. With elegance and resounding impact, Khan has accomplished what historians do for a living — bringing the past, and the archive, to life. This has opened my eyes to the different afterlives of the archive, and the important question for historians living in the 21st century, ‘how do we (historians) reach people’? With the same sources, Khan has managed to produce an impactful tale of the past to the audience coming from different histories of their own. In what ways, could historians achieve the same outcome? In the age where the textual is experienced through different senses—here I’m thinking of audible and Instagram—could history be ‘written’ with different mediums? Perhaps Khan’s Xenos can be a starting point.
 There is a new Emmy Noether Research Project, ‘Reaching the People: Communication and Global Orders in the Twentieth Century’ led by Valeska Huber at Freie Universität Berlin. For more, see https://www.geschkult.fu-berlin.de/en/e/fmi/reaching-the-people/index.html