Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Five stars

Mary Brennan

XENOS: translatable (from the Greek) as “stranger” or “foreigner”. Echoes of those meanings are in every phase of Akram Khan’s intensely felt - and painfully affecting – solo depicting an Indian Sepoy, fighting for Britain in the First World War. Not only is this man - a Kathak dancer, used to performing for the nobility – a stranger in a strange land where death is exploding all around, he is increasingly a stranger to his former life and to himself. What he – and 1000s of Sepoys like him – lost to war, Khan's XENOS unerringly asserts, needs remembering and honouring in this 1918 centenary year.

Khan’s collaborators – Michael Hulls (lighting), Vicenzo Lamagna (composer/sound design), Mirella Weingarten (set design) are to the fore, here – have conjured him a brutalising battlefield where all that is familiar goes “over the top” of a steep escarpment, the singing voices keen like the wailing of shells and a blood-red gloom shrouds a long, dark night of the soul.

We’ve already seen Khan, in an opening flashback, revisiting his past. Inhabiting his heartland realm of Kathak, dancing in physical and spiritual accord to the live music of Aditya Prakash (vocals) and BC Manjunath (percussion, konnakol). Towards the end, despite the ravages of war on his entire being, Khan’s character is still doing his duty, laying telephone cables. Perched atop the hill, he literally shoulders his responsibilities: he even winds hawsers over his eyes, and as the strains of Indian music float through the ether, his hands move in delicate dance-y gestures – as if searching the hostile air for the self he once was.

There are so many haunting, harrowing images in XENOS: the “colonial” voice heard through the ancient gramophone, the references to Prometheus – who also made sacrifices for mankind - but this somehow encapsulates what we all lose when art is imperilled. XENOS, Khan’s last ever solo, is a gift to hold dear.