Review, Xenos, Akram Khan Company

Sadler’s Wells Theatre 29 May – 9 June 2018

Xenos, Greek for foreigner. The title refers to the estimated 1.4 million Indian soldiers and the 4 million soldiers from the British Empire that fought in the First World War alongside Britain. But it is also a comment on the discourses of foreignness thrust upon many of those living in the United Kingdom today in the wake of the turn towards nationalism ignited by the Brexit vote. Commemoration is as much about the present as it is about the past and Khan’s performance speaks to today.

As the audience takes their seat they are greeted by two traditional Indian musicians (Aditya Prakash, vocals and B C Manjunath, percussion and Konnakol), mid-recital. The sparse stage is furnished with luxurious rugs, cushions and soft lighting, creating an enchanting atmosphere. But this is soon ruptured as you notice the ominous noose-like ropes running up the steeply sloping stage designed by Mirella Weingarten. A string of bare electric bulbs suggestive first of fairy-lights, or perhaps the street lighting of a festive market until they crackle and flicker unexpectedly. This is first sign of the technological horrors of war about to cut short the lives of millions of men. Khan enters wearing a white salwar kameez and ankle bells, carrying the burden of a large rope; a telegram wire calling the men of the empire to war?

‘Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It’s the ending of the world.’

Khan mesmerises as he performs traditional kathak dance accompanied by Prakash’s vocals and Mannjunath’s percussion. The pace quickens, drumbeats and vocals reminiscent of machine guns reach a crescendo as the set is slowly dragged up the steep slope, his world literally pulled from beneath him. Khan is left alone on stage, the traditional bells around his ankles unravel as the world of the soldier in a strange land unravels, transforming first into the puppet master’s strings, and then into two slings of shells wrapped around his body.

Photos: Jean Louise Fernandez ©, Tony Lewis ©.

We follow Khan’s soldier to war, the stage now covered in the soil of the trenches, Khan himself clad in the mud-encrusted clothes of war. He is relentlessly shot down and relentlessly resurrected to face the guns again, like the Promethean myth that inspired the production. As Dramaturg Ruth Little writes, “The Great War was fought between nations, but its acts and outcomes were centred in the human body. For all its infamous battles, it was a war of exhaustion, labour, discomfort and boredom, punctuated by indescribable periods of carnage.” Through Khan’s performance, both effortless and tortured, we are confronted with the embodied experience of the war for the individual. A gramophone at the top left of the stage recites the names of Indian soldiers so often left out of the popular narrative of the Western Front. Khan crouches before the gramophone evoking the image of His Master’s Voice; a wry critique of the colonial master’s calling the Empire to fight its imperialist war.

Images: His Master’s Voice, Khan in Xenos, Alastair Muir ©

If Khan’s choreography and performance are a tour de force (and they are), they are surely matched by Vencenzo Lamagna’s compositions and Julien Deloison’s sound design. Traditional Indian music is periodically interrupted by radio static, blending in the satirical wartime song, ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’, a comment on the perception that senior officers were often safe ‘miles and miles and miles behind the line’, while their battalions perished on the barbed wire of no man’s land.  At the top of the slope Khan is periodically joined by the five musicians that accompany the performance, witnesses to the horror of trench warfare.

akram-khan-xenos-900x300 Cal performancePhoto: Cal Performance ©

As the performance builds to its close the gramophone transforms into a searchlight, futilely scanning the no mans land of the audience.  Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor builds the tension to fever pitch as the stage is bombarded until there is nowhere left to move, yet this death is not one of peace and rest. Like Prometheus who was condemned to his torture day after day, this was not ‘the war to end all war’ and we are left with the impression that Khan’s solider will be doomed to endure this torture for an eternity.

Akram Khan has said this will be his final solo show, it is not to be missed. For information on future dates and tickets visit: http://www.akramkhancompany.net/productions/xenos/

For the extended trailer Xen visit: https://vimeo.com/273229256

 

Director/Choreographer/Performer Akram Khan

Set Designer Mirella Weingarten
Lighting Designer Michael Hulls
Costume Designer Kimie Nakano
Original Music Score composed by Vincenzo Lamagna
Dramaturg Ruth Little
Writer Jordan Tannahill
Rehearsal Director Mavin Khoo

Dancer Akram Khan
Musicians Nina Harries (double bass & vocals), Andrew Maddick (violin), B C Manjunath (percussions & konnakol), Tamar Osborn (baritone saxophone), Aditya Prakash (vocals)

Producer Farooq Chaudhry
Associate Producer Lindsey Dear
Technical Director Richard Fagan
Production Manager John Valente
Stage Manager Marek Pomocki
Lighting Engineer Stéphane Déjours
Sound Engineer Julien Deloison
Technician Russell Parker
Project/Tour Manager Mashitah Omar
Props made by Louise Edge from LFX props & special fx

The original music score was devised in collaboration with the musicians, and contains extracts from Requiem in D minor K. 626 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire (traditional composition), Tu Karim (traditional composition), Chhap Tilak (Amir Khusro), Babul Mora (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah), Naiharwa (Kabir).

 

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary

Co-produced by Onassis Cultural Centre – Athens, The Grange Festival Hampshire, Sadler’s Wells London, New Vision Arts Festival Hong Kong, Théâtre de la Ville Paris, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, National Arts Centre Ottawa, The 20th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF), Centro Cultural de Belém, Festspielhaus St. Pölten, Grec 2018 Festival de Barcelona, HELLERAU – European Center for the Arts Dresden, Edinburgh International Festival, Adelaide Festival, Festival Montpellier Danse 2018, Julidans Amsterdam, Canadian Stage Toronto, Romaeuropa Festival, Torinodanza festival / Teatro Stabile di Torino – Teatro Nazionale, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts New York, University of California Berkeley, Danse Danse Montreal, Curve Leicester.

Sponsored by COLAS

Supported by Arts Council England

Akram Khan is an Associate Artist of Sadler’s Wells London and Curve Leicester.

Produced during residency at The Grange, Hampshire and Onassis Cultural Centre – Athens

Special thanks to Katia Arfara &  the OCC team, Michael Chance, Michael Moody, Nigel Hinds, Jenny Waldman, Sarah Goodfellow, Hervé Le Bouc, Delphine Lombard, Béatrice Abeille-Robin, Mr. & Mrs. Khan, Yuko Khan, Sayuri & Kenzo Khan, Dannii Evans, Zia Ali, Es Devlin, Zena Edwards, Tim Freke, Ronan Harrington, Daniel Hernandez, Amit Lahav, Jerome Lewis, Confucius MC, Vahakn Matossian, Camilla Power, Ella Saltmarshe, Murray Shanahan, Zahed Sultan, Temujen Gunawandera, Jess Balla, Chris Timpson, Paul Evans, Robin Leonard, Florian Stagliano.

 

An introduction to my PhD research

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 09.10.29

In October 2017 I started my doctoral research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the National Productivity Investment Fund through the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership. Working alongside Dover Arts Development I have been looking at the way performance-based commemoration has emerged as a significant form of mnemonic labour during the centenary years of 2014-2018.

My PhD research initially arose out of my reaction to Jeremy Deller’s large-scale piece of performance art planned to commemorate the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 2016, We’re Here Because We’re Here. I’ve felt uneasy about military commemoration for a long time. I am often wary of the motives behind such commemorations and worry that they can serve to legitimize war and foster an exclusive ‘us and them’ mentality that makes wars possible – probable even. But Deller’s piece moved me. The more I thought about it and researched the popular memory of the First World War the more uneasy I got. Why, in a time of austerity is the government willing to spend so much money (£50 million) on commemorating a war that is often presented as a disaster in British leadership and why, as the war moves out of living memory, does it still appear to have such an emotive hold on the British public?

(Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 2016.)

 

Although 100 years have passed since the first shots were fired, the First World War continues to resonate within British collective memory.[1]  At the time it was touted as ‘the war to end war’, but the unexpected scale of causalities and the destruction of full-scale industrial warfare resulted in the events of 1914-18 becoming seared into the British popular memory.[2]  Although, strictly speaking, the First World War was a military victory for Britain and her allies, for over 50 years it has been predominantly remembered as a tragedy.[3] Representations of the war have shifted over time, but one of the dominant narratives since the late 1950s has been that of tragedy. One only has to mention ‘the trenches’ or ‘shell shock’ to conjure up a whole catalogue of imagery associated with the futility of war.[4] In contrast with the popular memory of the Second World War this was not Britain’s ‘finest hour’; it was ‘lions led by donkeys’ and ‘mud, blood and futility’.[5] Despite various recent attempts by some politicians and historians to reconceptualise the war as a just, necessary, and well-fought war, the dominant representation is that Britain was drawn into a conflict for reasons most did not understand, where brave men were led by incompetent officers, and many men were left with physical and mental scars.[6] These narratives persist because they serve political and emotional needs in the present.

It has been widely recognised that war commemoration is instrumental in the formation of collective identity, creating imagined communities that bind a nation together. [10] By creating a national narrative that a large proportion of the population can identify with a politics of inclusion, and subsequently exclusion, is at play with those whose experiences, values, and ideals that do not meet the national narrative marginalised or excluded.

By exploring the relationship between large nationally funded commemorations and smaller community-led initiatives my research will interrogate the politics behind the centenary commemorations of the First World War, drawing on the framework provided by Timothy G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson and Michael Roper to explore what narratives of articulation are drawn on, what arenas of articulation are open to whom, and what agencies of articulation are functioning.[7] I aim to show how the centenary commemorations have been used as a stage to play out present political concerns. The centenary years of 2014-2018 have been a particularly tumultuous period for British politics with the Scottish referendum, Brexit, the ‘refugee crisis’, debates over immigration, women’s issues, and questions around Britain’s imperial legacy all finding expression through commemorative performances. My research analyses several national performative re-enactments staged in partnership with large institutions such as the National Theatre, 14-18 Now, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, comparing and contrasting them with the ways in which smaller community-based performances have been staged and what sort of narratives are being presented in each and to what political ends.

 

Why Performance?

Distinct from traditional battle re-enactments with their emphasis on military glory these performances often foreground stories of resistance, such as anti-war protests or the tribunals of conscientious objectors. This distinct strand of commemorative activity often encourages its observers to become active participants, not simply recreating the factual events of the past, but actively engaging with the past to serve ideological aims and emotional needs in the present. But as Jay Winter succinctly observes, ‘memory is always about the future’, and this research will address the complex temporalities inherent in commemorative forms that aim to construct futures though (re)presenting the past.[9]

(Clockwise from top left: These Dangerous Women, Clapham Film Unit; A re-enactment of an anti-war meeting in Haringey by the Haringey First World War Peace Form, 2014; A re-enactor in the grounds of Brighton Pavilion as part of Dr Blighty, Nutkhut, Brighton Festival, 2016)

By focusing on the movement of the First World War out of living memory and into purely cultural memory my research will foreground the relationship between the embodied experience of performative re-enactment and the transition from communicative memory into cultural memory and the role of such memory work in identity formation.  [8] My research will explore the relationship between the embodied experience of a distinct category of performance which I have identified as ‘performative re-enactment’ as a mode of commemoration and the circulation of historical knowledge.

 

 

Notes:

[1] The way that the First World War is commemorated in each of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom makes it problematic to speak about a single ‘British’ collective memory of the First World War, particularly in Northern Ireland where the original Ulster Volunteer Force has taken on a strong symbolic significance for the Protestant community, lending its name to a loyalist paramilitary group during the troubles. Despite these challenges, and despite the fact that many of the projects I am evaluating take place in England, following Raphael Samuel, I choose to use ‘British’ over ‘English’ as it’s germane to the research I will be doing on the legacy of FWW and Empire in commemoration. According to Samuel ‘English’, with all its pastoral connotations, eschews the imperial difficulties acknowledged by ‘British’. Raphael Samuel, Introduction: exciting to be English, Patriotism: the making and unmaking of British national identity. Vol.1, History and politics, Edited by Raphael Samuel, London, Routledge, 1989, p. xii.

[2] Herbert George Wells, The war that will end war, London, Frank & Cecil Palmer, 1914, https://archive.org/details/warthatwillendwa00welluoft, (accessed accessed 14 November 2017).

[3] Dan Todman, The Great War: myth and memory, London, Hambledon and London, 2005.

[4] For an excellent extensive exploration on ‘war discourse’ see, Ross J. Wilson, ‘Still fighting in the trenches: ‘War discourse’ and the memory of the First World War in Britain’, Memory Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2015.

[5] Winston Churchill, HC Deb 18 June 1940 vol 362 cc51-64, edited, 1940, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1940/jun/18/war-situation, (accessed 1 February 2018); Alan Clark, The donkeys, London, Hutchingson, 1961. Reprint, 2006; Peter Parker, The last veteran: Harry Patch and the legacy of war, London, Fourth Estate, 2009, p. 19.

[6] Todman. On attempts to correct the historical inaccuracies see Brian Bond, The unquiet Western Front: Britain’s role in literature and history, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten victory, the First World War – myths and realities, London, Review, 2002; Gordon Corrigan, Mud, blood and poppycock, London, Cassel 2004. British Future, Which meanings of First World War centenary do people agree with?, http://www.britishfuture.org/articles/news/how-people-feel-first-world-war-centenary/, 2013, (accessed 22 April 2018).

[7] Timothy G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper, The politics of war memory and commemoration, London, Routledge, 2000, pp. 16-17.

[8] Jan Assmann, ‘Communicative and cultural memory’, in Astrid Erll, Ansgar Nünning, and Sara B. Young (eds), Cultural memory sudies: An international and interdisciplinary handbook, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2008.

[9] Substantial work on performance and temporality is currently a work in progress Jay Winter, ‘Commemorating catastrophe: 100 years on’, War & Society, vol. 36, no. 4, 2017, p. 239.

[10] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1983, revised 2006

History as News Public Engagement Workshop

History as News poster

On Friday 23 March 2018 the University of Brighton hosted a one-day TECHNE funded workshop aimed at enriching PhD researchers’ ability to create meaningful engagement with the media and community partners, and to develop strategies for research dissemination. Although the event had a historical focus for many of the case studies, the workshop was of interest to anyone seeking to improve their media and community engagement skills and attracted a wide range of participants from across the humanities including Post-graduate researchers and staff from several universities in the TECHNE doctoral training partnership..

The workshop began with a very well attended keynote lecture by Professor Lucy Noakes, Rab Butler Chair in Modern History at the University of Essex, recounting her experience working on a range of media and public engagement projects, followed by an ‘in conversation’ session with Dr Chris Kempshall which provided an opportunity for questions, comments and debates around the issues raised. Lucy addressed a range of practical topics  which included a humorous warning about a well-known television program that is:

slightly notorious for contacting academics, asking for all of your knowledge – carefully built up over years – in long phone calls on the unspoken premise that if what you have to say is interesting enough then maybe you’ll be invited to… appear on the programme as an expert

and sensibly advised a 30-minute cut-off point before a formal offer must be made. Lucy also addressed issues regarding the REF, and broader cultures of overwork, reminding us all to take time off for our own health and well-being, because:

Academics are notoriously bad at managing this: because we often do what we do because we love it, because we enjoy the research, the gathering and sharing of knowledge, the teaching and communicating and sharing what we do with others.

History as News Lucy ChrisProfessor Lucy Noakes in conversation with Dr Chris Kempshall

After lunch Ken Young, Communications Manager at the University of Brighton, delivered an interactive session focusing on the practicalities of media engagement, such as: developing relationships with the local press, social media strategies, writing press releases, and getting key research messages across in a short interview. The session began with a short presentation and then allowed time for participants to draw up a press release or media strategy for a project they are currently working on, with time to feedback to a partner and/or the group. Ken stressed 5 key considerations when trying to get your research into the news:

  • Timing: (why) is it relevant now?
  • Significance: who is it significant to?
  • Proximity: is it near in space, time or relationship?
  • Prominence: What makes it stand out?
  • Human Interest: Can you make an emotional connection?

Social media and blogging came up in discussion as platforms that several researchers felt that they should be using for professional purposes. Ken acknowledged that they can be useful tools for communicating your research to a wider audience but stressed that it is better to not have any social media/blog than to have one that you are not going to keep up to date (point noted!).

 

History as News Ken YoungKen Young, Communications Manager at the University of Brighton

 

The day concluded with a mixture of presentations by both students, and academics, sharing examples of projects where they have either had success engaging with the media, or would like feedback from others on strategies for stimulating future media engagement. Dr Olu Jenzen discussed her work with groups such as Allsorts Youth Project, Hastings People’s Pier, and Clevedon Community Pier. Olu acknowledged that as researchers community engagement can sometimes feel like another thing to do on top of our research, but that it doesn’t have to be an added burden. Through designing projects where community engagement is at the heart of the research academics can impact in their local communities as an everyday aspect of their work.

History as News 1Left to right:  Dr Michael Wilson, TECHNE PhD student Will Stronge, and Dr Olu Jenzen

In the penultimate presentation Will Stronge discussed his engagement with the public and the possibility of research effecting policy changes through the use of think tanks before Dr Michael Wilson asked as to think carefully about the institutional curation of public engagement to feed the impact agenda.

Thought-provoking indeed! What do you think? Please leave any comments below.

 

Agenda:

10.00 – 10.30          Registration & coffee

10.30 – 11.30          Professor Lucy Noakes, University of Essex

‘Doing research in public: Academic research and public engagement’

Followed by ‘in conversation’ with Dr Chris Kempshall Project Officer for East Sussex County Council’s First World War Centenary Project

 

11.30 – 12.00          Q&A/discussion

12.00 – 13.00          Lunch

 

13.00 – 15.00          Ken Young, Communications Manager, University of Brighton Media and Communications Department

‘Hitting the Headlines: engaging with the media to promote your research’ workshop

 

15.00 – 15.15                       Coffee break

 

15.15 – 15.30           Dr Olu Jenzen, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Brighton

‘Working with community partners: research, relationships and impact’

 

15.30 – 15.45           Will Stronge, TECHNE PhD candidate, University of Brighton

‘Think tank as strategy: politicising research’

 

15.45 – 16.00           Dr Michael Wilson, University of Brighton

‘Institutional curation, a provocation’

 

16.00 – 16.30           Collective Q & A and final discussions

Creativity and Commemoration

On Saturday the 10th March 2018, the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation hosted a postgraduate forum on the theme of ‘Commemoration and Creativity’. The day began with quick-fire 5-minute presentations from twenty post-graduate researchers (including myself) working across a range of disciplines including literary and cultural historians, social scientists, artists, and literary critics, to name but a few. The presentations were grouped into two sessions: ‘Rethinking Commemoration’ and ‘Perpetrators, Victims and Those in Between’. The interdisciplinary and transnational forum provided a fertile atmosphere for enquiry with questions being posed such as: ‘can we speak of “just forgetting?”’, ‘what does it mean to protest past wars in the present?’, and ‘what are memories made of?’.

A real highlight of the day was the candle-making workshop delivered by Dr Justine Shaw (University of Oxford), founder of the literary inspired candle company Literati & Light.  Dr Shaw gave a fascinating presentation on the links between fragrance and memory, citing Proust’s evocative description of the sensory experience of eating a madeleine cake dipped in lime-blossom tea transporting him back to his childhood in Combray:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.

(Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1, p. 60)

As a cultural historian researching the links between performances and commemoration this ‘Proustian moment’ focused my attention on the more sensual bodily experiences of taste and smell, adding another layer of complexity to my research that I will be reminded of each time I burn my exquisitely scented candle.

The day concluded with a collage poetry workshop with poets-in-residence Susie Campbell, Susan Zatland, Mariah Whelan, and Dahmicca Wright. The poets read a selection of their own poems, including Susan Zatland’s enigmatically titled …lose the dudes, keep the horses, (for an explanation click here) a collage poem inspired by some of the previous speakers in the Mellon-Sawyer Post-War Seminar Series including Daniel Libeskind, Dr C. Steenkamp, Dr G. Moshenska and Tony Horowitz. As well as forcing me to consider the most powerful and key phrases in my presentation there was something incredibly cathartic about cutting up my own research to make it a poem. It also reminded me to never forget the poetic in my own academic writing.

University of Brighton PhD Hub

PhD-Student-Hub-all-dates-graphic-1074x638-pdehar

Next meetings: 

Pursuing a PhD can be an isolating and emotionally testing experience, as The Times Higher Education , The Guardian,  and inews have all recently documented.

Long hours of working alone (often away from support networks), the high standards we hold ourselves to, and the expectations of expert knowledge can take place a high amount of stress on postgraduate researchers. In order to foster a dedicated interdisciplinary space where a community of researchers can come together to share experiences and relax my fellow PhD researcher Abby Barras and I started the University of Brighton PhD Hub. If you are a student at the University of Brighton the details of the next meeting are on the calendar on PhD Manager, or you can contact me or Abby for more information. This is an inclusive, student-led initiative and we welcome feedback and participation from students across disciplines.

History as News Workshop

 

TECHNE funded students are able to bid for funding to organize events. Recently I’ve received funding to run  a one-day workshop aimed at enriching PhD researchers’ ability to create meaningful engagement with the media and community partners, and to develop strategies for research dissemination. Although this event has a historical focus for many of the case studies, it is anticipated that this workshop would be of interest to anyone seeking to improve their media and community engagement skills.

This workshop event will start with a keynote lecture by Professor Lucy Noakes, Rab Butler Chair in Modern History at the University of Essex, recounting her experience working on a range of media and public engagement projects, followed by a Q&A/discussion session after the presentations, providing an opportunity for questions, comments and debates around the issues raised. These discussions will continue through a networking lunch. The organizers are keen to encourage discussion around the challenges of engaging with the media, the debates around public history, and wider questions around dissemination and impact.

After lunch there will be an interactive session focusing on the practicalities of media engagement, such as: developing relationships with the local press, social media strategies, writing press releases, and getting key research messages across in a short interview. The workshop element will begin with a short presentation and will then allow time for participants to draw up a press release/media strategy for a project they are currently working on, with time to feedback to a partner and/or the group.

The day will conclude with a mixture of presentations by both students, academics and community partners, sharing examples of projects where they have either had success engaging with the media, or would like feedback from others on strategies for stimulating future media engagement. If you are interested in speaking at the event please contact historyasnews@gmail.com .

Confirmed Speakers:
Keynote:
Professor Lucy Noakes: Rab Butler Chair in Modern History at the University of Essex
followed by ‘in conversation’ with Dr Chris Kempshall, Project Officer for East Sussex County Council’s First World War Centenary Project

Dr Olu Jenzen: Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Brighton

Ken Young, University of Brighton Media and Communications Department

Dr Michael Wilson, University of Brighton School of Arts

Draft Agenda:
10.00-10.30: Registration/coffee/networking
10.30-11.30: Keynote address from Professor Lucy Noakes followed by ‘in conversation’ with Dr Chris Kempshall
11.30-12.00: Q&A/discussion
12.00-13.00: Lunch/networking
13.00-15.00: Workshop on strategies to engage with the media delivered by Ken Young, Communications Manager, University of Brighton Media and Communications Department
15.00-15.15: Coffee break
15.15-16.30: Presentations with Q&A