Akram Khan Outwitting the Devil at Sadler’s Wells review: Great dancing but what’s going on?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
 (Jean Louis Fernandez)
(Jean Louis Fernandez)

How much you enjoy Akram Khan’s latest ensemble work will, I imagine, fall in direct proportion to how much you value a programme note. If you’re all about the atmosphere and brave enough to eschew a synopsis (which is handy, because you probably won’t be getting one), you’re going to love this show. Want a character cast list or even a line about the plot? Maybe not so much.

World-class performer, ground-breaking choreographer, ambitious storyteller – has any dancer had quite the access-all-areas star power of Khan? For the next two weeks, audiences will be able to experience some of the 47-year-old’s most recent work at his Carnival of Shadows festival at Sadler’s Wells, in particular his final UK full-length solo performances in 2018’s astonishing Xenos, in which he plays a shell-shocked First World War soldier.

Opening the three-piece run is Outwitting The Devil – Khan’s take on a 4,000-year-old Babylonian poem – which premiered in Stuttgart two years ago and, like nearly everything else in dance, saw its original shows delayed because of Covid. It’s beautifully designed, moodily lit and lusciously danced, but at times feels confused and confusing. Many will love its scale and ambition, the heady, seductive tone it creates: others will wish the choreographer and dramaturg Ruth Little had brought a little more coherence to proceedings.

After all, how much of the audience will truly be up to speed with the source material? Outwitting The Devil is inspired by The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the story of how the gods punished the king Gilgamesh by taking the life of a wild man he had tamed. In Khan’s one-hour, 20-minute tale, we see – not to mention hear, in moody intoned French – the older Gilgamesh (François Testory) reflecting on his life, watching as his younger self destroys a legendary cedar forest and kills its guardian, Humbaba. Each ‘scene’ is marked by changes in the lighting or the heightening of shadow; narrative threads ebb and flow as Vincenzo Lamagna’s cinematic score of chest-thumping bass, electric strings and distorted synthesizer churns away in the background.

 (handout)
(handout)

At the centre of it all, picking their way across Tom Scutt’s brick-strewn set, are a charismatic cast of six, more than able to take on Khan’s trademark blend of flowing Indian kathak and contemporary dance. Mythili Prakash is particularly good as the be-saried guardian, prowling across the stage one minute, feet pounding the floor the next, while Elpida Skourou, along with Luke Jessop, Jasper Narvaez and James Vu Anh Pham, mix power spins with animalistic hissing, contorted faces and an effortless plasticity.

Khan’s last big show – Creature for English National Ballet, which premiered in September – was widely criticised for letting a complex plot and multiple themes overwhelm his choreography; here, we have the opposite problem. His readiness to take on big issues – indeed, his conviction that dance can do them justice – is one of his great strengths as a choreographer. But one or two programme notes really wouldn’t go amiss.

Sadler’s Wells, to December 4, sadlerswells.com

Read More

9Round kickboxing gym: is this London’s best kept fitness secret?

The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House review: Unfailingly enchanting

Giselle review: A radical romance from risk-taker Natalia Osipova

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting