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Akram Khan's Xenos reveals the messier way the past inhabits the present.Jean Louis Fernandez

Xenos

Choreographed, directed and performed by Akram Khan

Written by Jordan Tannahill

In this last stretch of the First World War centenary, we might be thinking about endings – about conceptualizing an event as “over” and, therefore, static, unchanging. The power of choreographer and dancer Akram Khan’s Xenos, which opened at Canadian Stage on Thursday night, is how it rejects this sort of tidy historicizing to reveal the messier way the past inhabits the present. Freud tells us that trauma destabilizes history; it compels us to reorder, rethink, repeat. Khan might agree that suffering can be best described as an act of repetition.

Billed as Khan’s final performance as a solo dancer, the work is strongest when Khan is actually dancing.Jean Louis Fernandez

This no-man’s-land between the psyche and history is where Khan’s one-hour solo lives. The work relays the experience of an Indian colonial soldier in the First World War, a man whose trauma instigates a repetition compulsion to go back to the battlefield and relive his ordeal. His story is inflected with the myth of Prometheus – the original compulsive repeater of pain – condemned by the gods to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day (it grew back overnight). The Greeks understood that certain horrors are relived ad infinitum.

The images on stage are dreamlike, mythical. The piece begins with Khan performing at a party-like setting to traditional Indian music. He’s interrupted by flickering lights and crackling sounds. Chairs are pulled up a steep slope that transforms into a trench; the dancer becomes a soldier suddenly adrift in a desolate landscape – there’s chaos, the sound of artillery, a searchlight beaming through the dark. Five musicians appear and disappear in a floating rectangle of light (a platform above the action), perhaps the hallucination of a shell-shocked mind. The lighting (designed by Michael Hulls) conjures all kinds of earth and textures – slate, terracotta, mud – suggesting travel, displacement, the passing of time.

Billed as Khan’s final performance as a solo dancer, the work is strongest when Khan is actually dancing. In the more strictly Kathak segments, his incredible focus and speed are paired with an unusual expressivity through his upper body. It’s like watching two very different types of light: a laser beaming in sequential directions before undulating like a lava lamp. Later, the traditional vocabulary loosens and Khan becomes fully pliable and reactive. He’s magnetic as a performer; you just want to zoom in.

Khan is magnetic as a performer, you just want to zoom in.Jean Louis Fernandez

I was less captivated by some of the non-dance segments in which Khan seemed to hover between emotive movement and acting. There was no real narrative or emotional arc at play, so while the onstage images were consistently intense and evocative, I didn’t always have enough of a hook into the material to stay rapt. Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill collaborated with Khan as a writer, so I was surprised by the very slight amount of text, often mumbled inaudibly via voice-over and providing little help in the way of structure.

But in its final moments, Xenos soars. The final segment is downright stunning; it seems to move us beyond war, beyond repetition, beyond life itself. A violin crescendos, the ground turns the colour of blood and human bones clatter down on Khan like hail.

When the lights go up, we’re probably all a bit relieved to see that the stage is covered in pine cones.

Xenos at Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto continues until Oct. 21 (canadianstage.com).