For his dancing swansong, Akram Khan takes to the stage with a performance that turns a spotlight on the Indian soldiers of WW1.

Halfway through Xenos, the latest production from Akram Khan Company, we hear a series of men’s names emanating from a battered gramophone. Anonymous and unknown, they represent a fraction of the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War. 

Those who survived returned home from the trenches to find an Independent India had no interest in those who fought for the British Empire. A hundred years after the war ended, theirs and other stories are slowly being told – something Akram Khan was keen to be a part of.

“I was always interested in telling my own stories,” he says. “But more and more I’m becoming interested in telling other people’s stories – the stories that are not heard. While we were creating Xenos, lots of articles were coming out, stuff that was fuelling what we were doing.

“I think as a society, we have to embrace the fact that there is always a 360 degree perspective, but the media, the government and the colonial winners have always written history in a very particular way.”

Xenos, meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’, finds Akram Khan sharing the stage with five classical Indian musicians, and an epic set design which slopes up the back wall like a hillside. Depicting a lone soldier remembering his life as a dancer before being sent to fight, and incorporating aspects of Prometheus, a hero from Greek mythology, this is an important work for Khan in more than one way. 

Not only does it help redress the balance of history, and whose narratives we’re taught in school, but it will be Khan’s final full-length show as a performer. Having formed his company in 2000, after training in the classical Indian dance style of Kathak since childhood then studying contemporary dance, Khan has always had a spellbinding, inimitable style. Many will mourn the loss of seeing him dance on stage, but as Khan turns 44 this year, his body no longer feels the way it did.

'I’m becoming interested in telling other people’s stories – the stories that are not heard.'Click To Tweet

“The piece takes a lot out of me emotionally and physically, but it’s not performing I have a problem with,” he says. “Once you’re on stage, the concept of time disappears because it’s so heightened.
It’s suspended for a moment, and that’s what art can do sometimes, but then you come back into reality.” And the reality, of course, is lots and lots of training – something made easier in the recent past, by the addition of a studio in Akram Khan’s garden.

“It was great to have my studio in the back, otherwise I would not be doing Xenos,” he says with all seriousness. “I just wouldn’t have survived it –
I would have avoided going to train.” 

Although Xenos signals the end of a chapter in Khan’s life, the reality is some way off. After playing this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, the show will tour then return to London in 2020. Only then will it be time for Akram Khan to say goodbye to the dynamic solos he’s become so famous for. 

“It hasn’t hit me yet because I’m still dancing and still dealing with physios and all the pain, so that keeps me busy,” he laughs. “But I think in terms of letting go, I will be sad at the last show.”

One of the key factors in Khan’s decision-making, was the realisation that “I don’t need my body, that my mind can dance through other people’s bodies” – as witnessed in his highly acclaimed 2016 production of Giselle for English National Ballet.

We’ll also get a glimpse of that in Edinburgh this summer, when Kadamati, a short work created by Khan will be performed by hundreds of local dancers in the grounds outside Holyrood Palace.Like Xenos, the piece is inspired by the First World War, and will focus on connection, identity and hope.

Akram Khan

“It’s really exciting and very beautiful to go back to grassroots and work with a mass of people collectively,” says Akram Khan. “I experienced that a little bit in the Olympics, but there were 51 of us – this is going to be between 600 to 800 people. It’s quite an extraordinary feeling, because it’s not about the vocabulary anymore, it’s not about the movement, it’s about the intention.”

WHERE & WHEN

Xenos, Festival Theatre, 16-18 August, 8pm, from £14 

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