‘Sunil Lanba, Salman Quaraishi, Omar Syed…’ Names play from a crackling gramophone. We hear what they were before the war. Teacher. Engineer. Dancer. And what they endured during it. ‘I put down telephone cables in the mud,’ says one man. ‘Voices in the mud. Half of them already dead, sir.’ Already dead repeats and repeats. A juddering stuck record.
Akram Khan’s forgotten soldier — one of 1.5 million Indian men who fought in the trenches in the first world war — is also stuck. In Xenos, Khan’s last performance, though he will continue his career as a choreographer, a shell-shocked Indian sepoy has returned home in body — the Indian scene is set by percussionist B.C. Manjunath and singer Aditya Prakash — but his mind is still over there. The Somme. Ypres. Passchendaele. The gramophone plays a fragment of the bittersweet soldier’s song ‘The Old Battalion’. ‘If you want the old Battalion/ We know where they are/ We know where they are/ They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.’ A part of his mind, all his hope and optimism, are back in France. Snagged on the wire. ‘This is a man who has seen the horrors of battle,’ Khan has said, ‘and will never be complete again.’ Xenos is part of the 14–18 NOW programme — four years of arts events — marking the war’s centenary.
Khan’s choreography draws on kathak — classical Indian dance, practised by travelling bards and storytellers. In this solo performance, his vigour, quickness and firefly energy evoke the soldier’s irreparable sense of dislocation: wrenched from one continent to another, marched to hell and back, returned alive, but having seen friends and enemies die. He is foreign — xenos: stranger, alien, outsider — three times over. An Indian in the British Army, a scarred soldier among civilians, a man haunted by ghosts. In this intense performance of nightmare thrashings and cold trench-sweats, Khan crafts a body that is trapped in the past. He flails against the limits of his own limbs as if he would shed his skin like his soldier’s uniform. He has come back only half-human. In one distressing passage he crawls on all-fours like an animal.
Khan’s wonderfully expressive, palpitating hands suggest a racing heart, rushing blood, nerves strained by fear and uncertainty. Khan has spoken of his own 43-year-old body and of dancing past the point of pain. No dancer can stay strong and supple for ever. He communicates a quiet respect for the soldiers whose bodies were maimed and made less than whole by the war. There are sequences of immense power and pathetic grace, but also longueurs. It could be ten minutes tauter. There is just a smidge of self-indulgence.
The set by designer Mirella Weingarten — give that woman a medal — is starkly stupendous. A steep slope runs the length of the stage, spattered with mud and earth like a slice of a Paul Nash landscape. We are at the bottom of a dugout or a shell crater. We imagine no-man’s-land beyond. The chairs attached to ropes, cluttering the stage in the opening scene, are pulled hopelessly and inexorably over the top. Khan heaves desperately on the cords to keep them back, keep them safe. At one point, he stands on the slope’s ridge exposing himself to enemy gunfire. I had to stifle an instinct to shout: ‘Duck!’ Surely a sniper out in the dark of the backcloth. The lighting by Michael Hulls suggests night-blindness. A cat’s cradle of hanging light bulbs fuse. A match flares. The gramophone turns into a searchlight. Vicenzo Lamagna’s score and sound design is fragmentary. We hear shouts and echoes of war, among them a travesty of a parade-ground drill to a sergeant major’s whistle. The insistent drumming and use of konnakol — a type of vocal percussion associated with South Indian Carnatic music — conjure artillery fire and endless rain on duckboards. The Sadler’s Wells sound system is, as usual, deafening. The stalls should not shake like a mosh pit. You could argue that it’s barrages of war, but it’s just as bad for Cinderella and Pinocchio.
Xenos ends with a spectacular landslide. The slope collapses in scree and rubble. Our soldier loses his footing in shifting earth. His now bare torso is dirty and blackened. He is exhausted and undone, all passion spent.