Dance: Akram Khan bows out with First World War epic XENOS

The British-Bangledeshi dancer’s final major role, co-created with Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, exhumes the forgotten contribution of Indian soldiers who fought in the trenches.  

The last time the world-renowned British-Bangladeshi dancer Akram Khan was in Montreal, he performed a show whose title, Until the Lions, derived from an African proverb that goes: ‘’Until the lions have their say, the hunters will always tell the story.’’

That line could also apply to his latest piece, XENOS, which plays as part of the Danse Danse season at Place des Arts from Wednesday, Feb. 13 through Saturday, Feb. 16.

Khan, speaking to the Montreal Gazette from New York, describes how, in researching the show marking the centenary of the First World War, he and his collaborator, Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, came across articles about colonial soldiers who had “been forgotten or erased out of history. The more I read of them, the more upset I became. I was brought up in London, and the history that I saw never acknowledged these 4 million colonial soldiers, or the 1.4 million Indian colonial soldiers. It really upset me that that history had been edited out. And of course history is edited predominantly by white men, because they’re the victors.”

In XENOS, which means stranger or foreigner in Greek, Khan honours these forgotten soldiers with what the 44-year-old has announced will be his final performance in a major solo role. Joined by five musicians, Khan plays an Indian dancer who is thrust from a wedding celebration into the industrial slaughter of trench warfare.

“He’s thrown into a battlefield that is foreign to him,” says Khan, explaining the title — and perhaps why it’s been enlarged into capitalization. “The earth is foreign, the land is foreign, the smell, the food, the people are foreign, and he is a foreigner.”

XENOS, which has been attracting high praise and five-star reviews since premiering in Athens in 2017, features Khan’s signature blend of classical Indian kathak and contemporary dance. (Kathak, a 500-year-old form, uses elaborate hand gestures and footwork to tell stories and is said to have been a precursor of flamenco.) The show is also, with its recruitment of Jordan Tannahill (“I love him like a brother and an artist,” Khan enthuses), the latest example of Khan’s collaboration with some remarkable artists outside the dance world: Juliette Binoche in the dance-drama piece, in-i: Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle in Khan’s contribution to the London Olympics opening ceremony; sculptor Anish Kapoor in Khan’s first major work, Kaash; novelist Hanish Kureishi in A God of Small Tales.

Like Until the Lions, which focused on a story from the great Indian epic The Mahabharata (which, by the way, Khan once performed in as a 13-year-old for legendary director Peter Brook), XENOS also derives from myth. It is the Greek story of Prometheus, who in defiance of the gods gifted fire to humanity, and perhaps the means to its own destruction. Although XENOS is ostensibly about a war that is over and done with, Tannahill’s deliberately sparse script (“this is not war, it is the ending of the world”) and Mirella Weingarten’s astonishing apocalyptic set design suggest the reverberations might catch up with us yet.

“What has been happening over the last few years — the symptoms of the First World War have come up again,” says Khan. “Xenophobic reactions to migrants, the right-wing uprising. It’s amazing that we’ve arrived here after the Second World War. We’ve repeated ourselves twice and we’re doing it a third time. These moves have been made before, this chess game has been played before.”

And yet, for all the mud and blood of the trenches, for all the dead weight of a dreadful history coming around again, and despite XENOS marking an end to one strand of his career, it’s clear that you can’t keep a dancer like Khan down, especially not one whose influences have included such magnificently life-affirming movers as Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton and Muhammed Ali.

“It’s about hope,” says Khan of the show, and of his approach to life in general. “The very fact that you woke up this morning is a sign that you had hope. Hope lies in action, not in inaction.”


XENOS plays from Wednesday, Feb. 13, through Saturday, Feb. 16, at Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Tickets: $36 to $68; age 30 and under $29-$55. Call 514-842-2112 or visit

Vladimir Yaroshenko and Chinara Alizade in Krysztof Pastor’s Polish National Ballet production of Swan Lake. The horrors of the First World War might seem like a million miles away from this ethereal world. And yet.The horrors of the First World War might seem like a million miles away from the ethereal world of Swan Lake. Yet the seeds of that world-shattering conflict unexpectedly turn up in a production playing this month from the Polish National Ballet, under the aegis of Les Grands Ballets.

In director Krysztof Pastor’s version, Prince Siegfried, the young man besotted by the heroine-turned-swan, is himself transformed, in this case into the young Tsarevich Nicky. That’s the same Tsarevich, of course, who in later life went on to blunder his way into war with Germany and lose the empire to the Bolsheviks.

Mirroring the original’s Prince-Odette-Odile love triangle, this version sees Prince Nicky, though betrothed to Princess Alix of Hesse (the later Czarina Alexandra), succumbing to a forbidden infatuation, in his case with Polish ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska.

The story is based on a famous episode from Nicholas II’s life story. He did indeed almost run off with Kschessinska, and how world history might have changed if that had come to pass!

Still, for all the fascinating historical components of the production, traditionalists might be relieved to know that Pastor’s acclaimed version, which premiered in Warsaw in 2017, retains the original’s balance between reality and fantasy. Included are the transformations into white and black swans, the famous lakeside dream scene, and of course the (literally) revolutionary 32 fouettés in Act 3, which were introduced into Swan Lake by Kschessinska herself.


Swan Lake plays from Thursday, Feb. 21, through Saturday, March 2, at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts. Tickets: $54 to $199. Call 514-842-2112 or visit




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