Last dance, new partner for Akram Khan
XENOS, playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre this weekend, marks an ending for Akram Khan: it’s the last full-length solo piece that the acclaimed choreographer/dancer, who is 44, will perform himself.
It also marks a first: the debut collaboration between Khan, born in England of Bangladeshi parents, and hot young Canadian writer Jordan Tannahill. The 65-minute piece treats the experience of colonial soldiers who served in the First World War; the title is the Greek word for foreigner.
There’s a full-circle quality to XENOS appearing in the 2018-19 Canadian Stage season: it was the theatre’s former artistic director, Matthew Jocelyn, who introduced Khan and Tannahill. This extends a strong relationship that Jocelyn built with Khan: the latter’s shows DESH and TORO were featured in previous Canadian Stage seasons, and local audiences will also remember Khan’s Until the Lions, which played at the 2017 Luminato Festival.
Khan describes Jocelyn’s creative matchmaking: “I was here in Toronto several years ago and at that period I was searching for a writer who understood the process of theatre and the process of movement and the process of visual imagery. And that’s difficult to find … someone who has a 360 experience and perspective on how a process evolves with movement.”
Jocelyn said he knew just the writer. Canadian Stage has been similarly supportive of Tannahill’s burgeoning career — his productions Declarations and Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, and the collaborative piece Concord Floral have all been produced or presented by the company in recent years.
Khan was instantly taken by Tannahill’s capacity to think and speak “in layers … I’m hoping I’ll get to that when I’m 60. That wisdom.” (Tannahill is exactly half that age.)
The younger man was managing serious jitters during that meeting: “I’ve been a big fan of Akram’s work for a long time.” Dance and movement pieces have been par of Tannahill’s artistic explorations but working with Khan’s company “was on a totally different scale.”
Little was defined creatively speaking when they started working together, other than that this would be a solo for Khan to premiere in Athens in February 2018. The Greek location prompted a conversation about the myth of Prometheus, who gave mankind fire but was sentenced by the gods to eternal torment as a result. When Khan’s company took on a commission from 14-18 NOW, a U.K. initiative to mark the centenary of the First World War, the war context entered the creative frame.
Then the question became, says Tannahill, “how can we root this in Akram? Where is this narrative situated in him?” Fortuitously, an archive of recordings from sepoys — soldiers from India who fought for European armies — had just been opened up, along with letters they wrote back home from the front. “We dove into that as a kind of starting point for this Promethean journey of the colonial body within the war zone,” says Tannahill.
Khan says he was “upset” by what he learned in the making of the show about the contribution of Indian soldiers to the war, “because I had never studied that in history. That sense of, from the white male perspective, history being written (while) omitting, editing out, erasing out …. the idea of archives and who writes the narrative. Whose perspective are you seeing it through. It really affected me.”
A key element of the production is the sloped-back surface of designer Mirella Weingarten’s set, which came out of an early sketch that reminded Khan of the tongue of the goddess Kali: “There was something trench-like about it. Volcanic-like.” He balked, though, when the set arrived and the back wall was so steep that he didn’t know how to interact with it. Weingarten’s “mission … was for me to let go being the dancer that I am,” says Khan. She wanted him to relinquish “everything that I rely on. My strength, my technique. Because she said the soldier was beaten down.”
Indeed, he says, every time he performs the show, the strength runs out of him, and this demonstration of “the failing body, the breaking body, the body as repository of physical and psychic pain” is at the heart of the show’s success, according to the Guardian’s dance critic Luke Jennings, who reviewed the show in June during its run at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London.
There are about six pages of Tannahill’s writing in the show, which Khan speaks in recorded voice-over as he dances. Khan says Tannahill has a “kind of a Japanese-philosophy approach to text, where it’s not how much you put in, it’s how much you leave out. And the remaining text becomes so much more potent. It becomes a kind of a skeleton that kind of shields the scene, protects the scene, and which I fill with movement.”
When I ask him why he’s giving up full-length solo dance projects, Khan’s answer is disarming: “A bit of laziness.” It does have to do with aging: “the fear of injury or the fear that I’m not going to finish the show or I’m not going to make it to the end. I don’t like that sense of vulnerability.” But it also has to do with being tired of touring and “missing my kids. They are very small.”
The Akram Khan Company will continue to produce his choreographic work, including a new project with Tannahill called Outwitting the Devil. Thinking about the effects of time on Khan’s body led the two men and dramaturg Ruth Little to what Tannahill calls a “pan-ecological reckoning … an exploration of what is left in the time we have in relation to ecological catastrophe. Specifically as it relates to food and the spoils of the earth.”
It is early days, though, for the piece. “Come back to us in six months,” says Tannahill. Khan finishes the thought: “ … and you’ll have something else.”
XENOS plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St. E., from October 18-21. Canadianstage.com and 416-368-3110.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2