Choreographer: Akram Khan
Over the next two weeks, Sadler’s Wells is hosting three works from the Akram Khan Company under the umbrella title Shadow carnival. The first of them is that of 2019 Outsmart the devil, receiving its UK premiere here. With next week’s Xenos and Chotto Xenos, the works on display overlap with the period in which Khan retired from the stage to focus solely on the choreography.
Loosely based on the Mesopotamian legends of Gilgamesh, the play sees an old man reflect on his life. The events are replayed as in a dream, tells us a voice over in French, where he is young and immortal. And so, we see François Testory’s old man seeing his movements reflected and reinforced in muscular strength by his young self.
Around the scene are small stone tablets, possibly signifying the writing materials on which these myths were first recorded. Sometimes performers will lift tablets, weigh them down, or use them to crush others, as if the act of writing these tales were an act of oppression against the myths themselves.
Perhaps if Gilgamesh’s stories were better known in modern culture, the events on stage could be assessed as literal reinterpretations. But although the touring productions of this Company work included program notes evoking the myths that inspired the piece, this performance lacks such accompanying material. So in that light Outsmart the devil can perhaps grow beyond his inspiration, be evaluated on his own terms.
The problem with this is that while Khan’s trademark choreography – combining the traditions of the Western movement with those of Kathak and other techniques that use a dancer’s feet and hands almost like characters different from those portrayed by the rest of the body – is present in spades, the narrative suffers from a lack of clarity when separated from its source.
What’s left is captivating to watch – especially with Mythili Prakash’s deity, dressed in beautiful orange robes exploding from a stage where everything else, including the other dancers, is in shades of gray. We can discern the actions of the younger version of the central character as sometimes brutal, sometimes loving – but when it seems to break another character’s neck, questions remain. Was it a lovers’ quarrel, an act of war, or something else? Is the man who could have been considered the hero of the play in fact its antagonist?
There’s the idea that maybe that’s what Khan is aiming for, starting with mythological stories and removing their original context so audiences have to attribute theirs. If so, it’s not completely effective, but there’s no denying that it makes for a beautiful night of dance aesthetically.
In the end, it seems the old man’s dream has come to an end. No longer young and immortal, he is old and dying. But he is, at least at peace. And as Vincenzo Lamagna’s sometimes deafening score merges into something more serene, perhaps coming to terms with one’s own past is the true timeless story seen here.
Until November 27, 2021