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Monday, November 29, 2021

Akram Khan Dance Company, Outwitting the Devil, review: a beautiful show that’s liable to outwit the audience

Akram Khan is one of the most inquiring, intelligent, exhilarating dancer-choreographers this country has ever produced, which is not to say that he has always been the “easiest” – certain elements in past masterpieces of his such as Desh (2011), Until the Lions (2016) and Xenos (2018) remained tantalisingly mysterious even at curtain-down. And yet, these works all cleverly gave you just enough, in terms of theme, visuals and narrative, to get a proper handle on them, and it was then up to you to engage, emotionally and intellectually – an infinitely rewarding experience.

More recently, with Khan increasingly leaving the dancing to others, both his and now regular dramaturg Ruth Little’s reluctance to spoon feed audiences has felt more intense, and it has started to lead them and their audiences up blind alleys.

Premiered at Sadler’s Wells in September, Creature was a well-intentioned but hopeless muddle. And, although Outwitting the Devil – premiered in Stuttgart two years ago, and this week getting its British premiere – is considerably better than that, it is still exasperatingly dense and opaque. In the absence of any clear dramatic exposition (or explanatory programme notes, though those, ideally, would be barely necessary anyway), you may well find yourself flailing for much or all of it.

I can tell you (because it says so on the Sadler’s website) that it is based on the  Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh – which, dating from around 2100 BC, is regarded as the earliest surviving work of literature. The young king of the title destroys a legendary cedar forest and kills its guardian, whereupon the gods take the life of the wild man, Enkidu, whom he had tamed and befriended. Eventually, Gilgamesh “passes into history, to become a fragment among the broken remnants of human culture and memory”.

It is very “Khan” to have rooted a modern piece – about mankind’s ritualising of memory and, I suspect, the perilous state of the planet – in an age-old myth, and the 80-minute result certainly looks as timeless as it does beautiful. Told in flashback, with the occasional voiceover (in French, for some reason) translated into English via surtitles, it plays out a kind of painfully exquisite penumbra, with Khan’s choreography, embracing Western-contemporary dance and at least one Indian classical discipline, mostly slow, coiled, tense.

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