"Everything about this work has been about transformation," says the dancer-choreographer Akram Khan of XENOS, his third work after Vertical Road (2012) and DESH (2013) to be performed as part of the White Light Festival. He's referring in part to the process leading to XENOS, which began with the Greek myth of Prometheus and ended up the shell-shocked dream of a colonial soldier in World War I.
It also refers to the place of XENOS in Khan's creative arc. When he began work on the piece three years ago, Khan knew this would be his final full-length solo work. Known for physically astonishing solo performances that draw on both the kathak dance tradition of northern India and modern dance to conjure entire worlds and fill them with characters, the 43-year-old Khan felt that his body was beginning to slow down and he wasn't willing to transform the way he moved. "This is really the end of one chapter of exploring my body," he says.
For all dancers, the end of their stage careers, which happens so early compared to other artists, is existentially fraught. In XENOS, this anxiety manifests itself quite literally in scenographer Mirella Weingarten's set design as a trench—the iconic formation of World War I, where soldiers sheltered for months in the hopes of gaining a few inches of territory.
"A lot of research we did focused on men just sitting around and waiting. Waiting to die really," says Khan. "The space that I hold on stage is a no-man's land in the sense that it's a place where we may confront friends or enemies. We may die or we may kill. We don't really know."
"We all feel a bit estranged right now, like a foreigner or a stranger either to our government or to each other or to the world. Nothing feels home to us anymore."
In imagining what it must have felt like for these millions of Indian soldiers to sacrifice their bodies for a foreign power in a foreign land, Khan found it easy to relate. "We all feel a bit estranged right now, like a foreigner or a stranger either to our government or to each other or to the world. Nothing feels home to us anymore," he says, explaining that the title XENOS is the Greek word for foreign. "Xenophobia is popular again and these are the very symptoms that were there before the First World War. The sense of dividing people, creating walls, fear of the other."
For Khan, a second-generation immigrant who was raised in London by Bangladeshi parents, the space between a collective past and personal identity is where much of his work lies. Yet this overtly political motivation is unusual. "I always said that the work that I make is not politically driven, but that has changed," he explains. "I feel we as artists have a responsibility to put up the mirror to the audience and to ourselves."
A key part of this responsibility is refusing to accept a history edited by the victors. "How do we know what to tell our children about the future if we don't truly know the full range of our past?" he asks, expressing how upset he had been that the first time he heard of the 4.5 million non-British soldiers (including 1.5 million Indians) who fought for Britain in World War I was just a few years ago. "The untold stories need to be told. It's like John Berger said, 'never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.'"
But according to Khan, we are not succeeding as a culture at this. "I feel we are in a myth gap and so we're compassless," he adds, acknowledging Alex Evans's 2017 book The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren't Enough. "Our civilization has to transform. We have to be reborn. The old myths—capitalism and, before that, imperialism—have to change. We live on one planet and we can't separate ourselves with walls. The air you breathe will eventually arrive on the other side of the planet. The seas that we affect will eventually affect the seas on the other side of the planet."
While Khan cites the volatile political climate of the Brexit era as one cause of his shifting attitude, there is another, more personal, transformation that has also had a profound impact on his creative vision. "My whole way of looking at stories changed once my children were born," he says frankly. "Artists are very self-orientated people and the birth of my children gave birth to empathy in me. I realized that I am not the only story that matters, and I started to look into other people's stories because I can't impose my story on my child. I can tell them my story but it's not theirs. They have to have their own story."
"Art is about listening. In order to listen we have to stop speaking, and art allows that space. It's really a sacred space."
For an artist who has grappled for three decades with the myths passed down from his own parents as he strived to create his own, this shift is monumental. In his breakout solo work DESH, Khan searches for a piece of himself by seeking to understand his ancestors, re-creating his father's hometown. But in recent works, he has begun to reject the framing of the myths that are being handed down to us.
Specifically, he is frustrated by the male perspective of most of them, a trait that he became acutely aware of once he began to consider what his daughter's story might be. In both Until the Lions, a retelling of the princess Amba's story from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata created for his company, and the Giselle he made for the English National Ballet, Khan sought to reimagine classic tales from the perspective of their heroines. What he discovered was that there was a lot of nuanced work that needed to be done to free the female characters of the negative traits that had haunted them for centuries.
"Art is about listening," he explains. "In order to listen we have to stop speaking, and art allows that space. It's really a sacred space."
In XENOS, this newly enhanced empathy enables him to internalize the emotional worlds of men long forgotten to the past and to bring their stories urgently into our world. Living the physical experience of the colonial soldier, Khan the dancer surrenders himself to the other, "xenos." It mirrors the soldier's surrendering of his body to a foreign power. It also mirrors this riveting moment in Khan's own journey as an artist, as he ends the exploration of his own physical body to discover the stories residing within others. "It's within the act of moving where hope lies," says Khan, indicating that even as his body slows, his spirit moves forward in pursuit of deeper understanding of the human experience.
Amanda MacBlane is Associate Director of Communications at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.