I walked out of the auditorium as the applause started. I couldn’t bear to have anything disturb that quiet contemplative state my mind had entered after watching Akram Khan in Xenos at the Zellerbach Hall on March 3rd Sunday.

Where do I begin to describe the magic that he created?

To describe dance using words poses a unique challenge – my mind absorbs movement in such complexity that when I start to describe it, the words seem reductionist and oddly wanting. The movement that made my heart quicken is so subtle that i can never quite explain it fully  – was it just the angle of the cheek as he/she turned backwards? Was it the use of the upturned chin gazing upwards? What was it? You only know that the totality of the movement from head to toe conveyed meaning so powerful that something shifted within you.

The promo that accompanied Khan’s performance had the following words – “A powerful work that reveals the beauty and horrors of the human condition through the myth of Prometheus, it is told from the perspective of an Indian soldier recruited to fight in the trenches of World War I for the British Crown. “Xenos” means “stranger” or “alien” in Greek, and Khan’s work bravely explores the soldier’s alienation as he is trapped between two cultures in the colonial system.” One and a half million Indian soldiers died fighting for the British crown during the First World War and his solo work was a homage to those forgotten soldiers and was directed at the isolation of a soldier drawn from any time in history bearing a cross for the rest of society.

Lighting, music, sets and the voice over created a spellbinding effect in narrowing my attention on the solo dancer Akram Khan on stage. Now writhing, twirling, striving, falling and rising again – his body became all at once an outward symbol for the questions and thoughts that plague the human mind about the very meaning of existence. What is the value of a human life, especially when you think of a soldier fighting a war that he does not fully understand? Questions that every human generation asks and fails to answer. From time immemorial, a country’s borders have always been created by spilling blood and are protected to this day by the spilling of more blood. To take a topic such as this – heavy in its import and abstract in its telling – to the stage and to give those questions meaning is a stupendous task. His classical training in kathak came through in the predictable use of lightning fast chakkars, but, more mesmerizingly in the use of his fingers. Seated far from the stage, I could still see his fingers used so effectively stretching sinuously upwards and outwards leaving a mark on the mind.

Akram Khan was supported by a veritable “royal” cast of experts in various fields who came together to tell this remarkable story.

Dramaturg Ruth Little, Lighting Designer Michael Hulls, Original Music Score and Sound Design by Vincenzo Lamagna,  with the Set Designer being Mirella Weingarten, while the Costume Designer was Kimie Nakano. It was written by Jordan Tannahill with Rehearsal Directors being Mavin Khoo and Nicola Monaco. Live musicians included Nina Harries (double bass and vocals), BC Manjunath (percussion and konnakol), Tamar Osborn (baritone saxophone), Aditya Prakash (vocals), and Clarice Rarity (violin).

A performance that has yielded short moving vignettes in the mind that these words fails to capture at some level – an unforgettable experience.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine. A classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, she continues to find movement ever magical and transformative. 

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a multifaceted artist - a dancer, writer, storyteller, and educator. She founded the Sankalpa School of dance, where she trains the next generation of committed dancers to pursue...