Critical Context: Prometheus is in the building

The below piece is part of Critical Context, a paid writing residency created in partnership with the Harris Theater. The initiative engages past SCD Critical Dance Writing Fellows in a three- to six-month residency in mentorship, research, and deep exploration of Harris Theater Presents dance programming.

By supporting writers in building their bodies of work — prioritizing writers of color and those with backgrounds in underrepresented dance forms — Critical Context aims to promote equity in the dance writing field, expand and deepen Harris Theater communications through multiple lenses, and enhance audience access to and understanding of the art form.

The first two writers selected for Critical Context are D’onminique Boyd-Riley and Tristan Bruns, whose work will be featured in the months ahead. As editor of See Chicago Dance, Lauren Warnecke will provide mentorship and support to these two writers and, as part of that process, has contributed the program essay for this engagement.

“Xenos” began as a dance about Prometheus, the mythological god of fire whose defiance of the gods gave rise to human civilization. When the UK-based organization 14-18 NOW approached Akram Khan with an offer he could not refuse, the choreographer pivoted to make a response to the First World War’s centennial. In “Xenos,” Khan portrays a colonial soldier, one of 1.3 million Indian men who naively enlisted in World War I. He is a dancer, who used the strength, agility and coordination enshrined in his body as an expression of faith, culture, and community to fight on behalf of a country that invaded his own. The unforeseen consequences this man suffers in the aftermath carry Khan’s body to physical and emotional limits in ways that gobble up the Harris Theater’s cavernous stage. Perhaps it is about Prometheus, after all.

“Artists choose the responsibility of reflecting what is happening in the world around them, because there is chaos within them,” Khan said to me recently. We saw this in 2019 when his “Giselle” came to the Harris with English National Ballet. “Giselle” layered the real story of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers over the canonical fairy tale about a waifish girl who died of a broken heart and her wilis. In the process, Khan wove in frequently used themes—identity, forced migration and xenophobia—in this case, simultaneously pointing to the refugee crisis in Europe. “Giselle” brought up timely American images, too. This side of the pond, it spoke of walls, false promises, and political propaganda.

Growing up in the UK, Khan, whose parents immigrated from Bangladesh, was not taught about colonial contributions that resulted in 75,000 Indian soldiers’ deaths in World War I. It was as if they’d been erased from history, and it made him angry.

“Xenos” gives voice to these forgotten soldiers through Khan’s signature movement language blending kathak, contemporary dance, and, most recently Jiu Jitsu, his pandemic coping mechanism. Prometheus remains a theme running in the background, and for Harris Theater audiences, “Xenos” also foreshadows English National Ballet’s return. They will perform Khan’s “Creature” next February, a further manifestation that pulls from interpretations by Mary Shelley and Georg Büchner.

There are more reasons why these particular “Xenos” performances represent a full circle. For Khan, who is 47, it is the end of one life cycle in a dancer’s career as he gives his final appearances on stage. Delayed a year by the pandemic, he could have easily said “never mind” to these last performances of “Xenos,” having done it since 2018 until the pandemic began. But this leg of the tour is about keeping a promise Patricia Barretto, the late leader of this theater who died from breast cancer in March 2020. Patricia fearlessly advocated for bringing Khan’s work to Chicago as a central as aspect of her artistic vision. Without question, it was a vision that, in short order, indelibly changed us. She is certainly watching.

From the Harris Theater: We are sorry to share that the Nov. 12 and 13 performances of Akram Khan’s XENOS at the Harris have been canceled. The shipment of the set for this work was significantly delayed by the same issues disrupting supply chains around the world and will not arrive in Chicago in time for our presentation. While unfortunately rescheduling is not possible, we will offer a stream of XENOS the film to all ticketed audience members beginning Friday, Nov. 12, which will be available for one week.

A message from Akram Khan:

"This unusual situation reminded me of my mother’s words to me. She would often say, 'when things are good, be grateful, when things are challenging, be graceful.' And 'graceful' is the only way I can best describe the incredible team at the Harris Theater..."

The feeling is mutual.