Dance is a systematic representation of reality! Reflections on Akram Khan’s world premiere Xenos in Athens (21-27 February 2018).

by Lito Tsitsou

I should start with this: dance critique is not my thing and as a sociologist of dance, I consciously avoided writing about dance in this way. This is because I am a ballet lover. My eyes and body are attracted to a specific technique, fine lines and verticality. I appreciate contemporary work, I am always open and I enjoy it; but I admit it, my gaze is balletic.

Nevertheless, I cannot un-see what I saw and the impulse of talking about a piece of art that reached an impressive totality is immense. Yet, this is not a critique. It is rather a defence of dance and its capacity to represent the world.

 Xenos is a statement against the Empire. It negotiates the First World War toll on the British colonies; a war that annihilated the bodies of men mobilized from all places of British Imperial rule to fight for “Great Britain”. These bodies, numbers in death records, were erased from history and memory, expendables in the project of “freedom”.

Akram Khan’s conception of the contradiction between defending the “soil one belongs to” and loosing the sense of belonging encapsulates the drama of the modern world. Xenos is the story of a soldier longing to belong, uprooted, always alone in the trenches. And “then again at another time, [he was] a father, a daughter, a lover” but in the end he was “alone”. Khan honours his ancestry and the ‘alien’, forgotten colonized bodies of WWI with a piece of dance that really is a shock to our system.

The piece starts with the hero playing with a handful of soil – an image that alludes to our sense of belonging. The piece continues in a forceful way, suggestive of the cultural weight of the Orient and the colonized world. Khan dances in an indoor setting to the tune of a traditional singer and a drum. His performance in what looks like a traditional costume, yet deprived of any specific local indication (totally white), with bells wrapped around his ankles is a reference to the dances of the colonies (mainly Indian and Bangladeshi) enacted in a polemical and even masculine way. This dance is about identity; it reflects a very vivid presence in the world. In essence, it is a cry for worldwide acknowledgement of the existence and contribution of the orient but also for the recognition of the cultural significance of a way of life.

 The setting changes with a reclining part of the stage pulling away all the indoor furniture, leaving the hero bemused; a very powerful scene of uprooting and loss, while Khan’s man is violently conscripted for war. The next scene finds him in the trenches of war, soiled by mud, on an alien ground. He discovers a gramophone that emits sound: “the sound comes from the ground”: the gramophone announces names of the dead – these are real names soldiers from the colonies, people with other lives (teachers, drs etc.) that Khan discovered during his extensive research in archives.

The hero engages in battle and a battle with himself- alone- covering his costume with more soil, an alien soil, which makes me him feel more estranged, he is a XENOS. He struggles to remove his uniform, one more loss of identity: “whose is this hand? Whose are these lips? Who am I? Who is pointing at my gun? Where is my end?” An endless, overwhelming sense of dispossession, fracture and brokenness, pure alienation!

Akram Khan embodies the disembodiment of the stranger, the one who has nowhere to lean to, no ties, no belonging, no identity. The piece finishes with another overwhelming scene. The hero finds a pine cone- his transitional object- a familiar natural piece. We witness his process of identification with the cone. Then, the hero forms a small pile of soil and places the cone on top. At the same time via the same reclining part of the stage, hundreds of pinecones roll on the stage, the Others, the uprooted just like him, looking for a pile of soil to belong to.

The significance of Khan’s work is immense for two reasons: because he is a dancer and because his sense of history is accurate and the timing of the work important.

Dance as an embodied form can represent the physical history, the painful experiences of dispossession and loss, because all these happen to the body and are experienced by the body. Bodies move en mass for war or flee the war and become numbers, forgotten and erased. But through dance these bodies come to life again. Khan, like Jesus- allow me the reference here to the idea of embodying death to overcome it- embodies the lost, the dispossessed, the estranged to bring them back to life and represent their experience in the age of disembodiment and fractured realities.

  The amount of work put in Xenos is impressive, the systematic way in which estrangement is represented testifies to the seriousness of research that presided the work. The style of movement, the physical strength required for the execution of the piece all shout “scientific”. This is not to say that science is a higher form but rather that art is equally systematic, and dance- the most primary form of communication- is especially suitable for the representation of history, because history is the praxis of the embodied self.

   A few words about history and timing: Khan’s decision to premier this work in Greece reflects his sense of history. Khan’s intention to create a parallel dialogue about the lost of WWI and the current mass migration due to war in Syria and elsewhere is evident. Greece represents the point of contradiction, the uprooted flee here for safety, but they are strangers, they are not given a pile of soil, they are in transit -always betwixt and between- always XENOI. The performances are taking place during strikes in Ghouta, where lives are vanished, realities are fractured and loss becomes the body. The totality of the work meets the totality of the real: “This isn’t a war, this is the world ending”.

   The conditions of possibility of Xenos rely on Khan’s education, his rootedness in British soil, on the Arts Council in England, on his precious collaborators, his capacity to access archives and interpret the material and his trained capacity to transform history into art. Very rooted you may say, very middle class, very male. They all hold true, yet Khan’s personal history and training trajectory places him on the intersection of privilege and oppression. Khan understands the subaltern, the experiences of colonial oppression but also the importance of oriental culture and dance as means of identity expression and belonging. Through a mastery of traditional dances and contemporary dance Khan becomes the vehicle through which other historical and contemporary bodies find their place in the world. Khan serves Spivak’s mandate; he represents those without a rooted presence in the world through his rooted body. In the same way Spivak suggested that the subaltern could speak through science, even if always represented by the more privileged yet critical scholars who advocate for it, the uprooted can speak through dance by means of Khan’s body. Dance can then be this intermediary of primary feeling and experience in a very systematic, accurate and deep way; because dance is the body and the body can become the dance.

  However, I ought to talk about the bodies of those who watched the performance. Again, the audience in Athens was very middle class (I, for example, was sat next to a former prime minister). It comprised of those with an interest in dance, those who want to identify with high culture (this was highly advertised in such circles) and of course those with an interest in the content per se. Yet, did these middle class bodies experience the pain of displacement? were they moved? I certainly was. I have been working with refugees for the past few months, entering the realities of children that struggle to do precisely this: root themselves in Greece or elsewhere. I say that Khan’s work spoke about this struggle effectively, and made me realise more about the people I work with. Now, I don’t know, if I can be classified as middle class exactly, but If I can speak as such, I would say this: middle class of the world, go and watch Xenos, you may understand or you may get a glimpse of your future… because you may become Xenoi too.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-313.

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