‘Assured, challenging and as disturbing as any horror movie’

By Christopher Walker

Akram Khan’s Outwitting the Devil is an assured, challenging, piece as disturbing as any horror movie. Although not easily accessible, it is well worth the effort.

It is at the cutting edge of contemporary dance, and showcases some incredible talent.

In a darkened room an old man lies dying reviewing the events of his life. It soon becomes a nightmarish ‘carnival of shadows’ as he recalls his acts of cruelty, and his mistakes. He realizes he has acted like a serial killer, crushing everything and everyone who was beautiful, and who had the misfortune to come across him.

Where does this come from?

Akram Khan bumped into Farooq Chaudry at an arts gathering on the Southbank and the lucky outcome was the birth of the Akram Khan dance company. Although born in South London, Khan is of Bangladeshi heritage, and his work combines the best of western and Asian traditions.

Khan’s art has been further enhanced by collaboration with one of London’s brightest composing talents. Vincenzo Lamagna’s music perfectly compliments the piece. It is itself disturbing and unsettling, with everything from sirens to animal noises conjured up. It is certainly difficult at first, but you soon realize it is well chosen.

Khan says that he drew inspiration for Outwitting the Devil from the ancient manuscript The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is nearly four thousand years old. Human regret has a long history. A knowledge of that complex text is not required. However, it is worth noting that it is from this source that another crime is added to the litany of human regrets. The despoilation of our planet.

Khan is blessed by a fabulous dance company, and the dancers deserve more accolades than they are given in uncredited photographs and short biographies. The individual performances are simply outstanding.

Khan states that he has a delight in using the honed skills of older performers and French veteran Francois Testory demonstrates what this can achieve. Khan cleverly choreographs him to best use his talents. I presume it is due to Testory’s presence in the lead role that there are words recited in French, and (partially) translated for many baffled in the audience. It certainly would have made things easier if they had been in English.

Testory’s younger self is performed by the fabulous Luke Jessop. He expresses energy and strength, whilst also appearing threatening. As he raises his hands incarnating the Devil of the title, it is really quite frightening. The sinuous, wonderfully agile, Jasper Narvaez is easy prey to Jessop. As is the equally talented James Vu An Pham, and Louis T.Partridge.

Their performances are particularly enhanced by the most ingenious, creative use of lighting. If the dance world has a lighting award than Aideen Malone should get it. There is a magnificent scene where Francois Testory stands on a podium next to his younger, more muscly self (Jessop). The lighting makes one out to be cadaverous, the other almost superhuman.

The female dancers demonstrate Khan’s South Asian Kathak classical dance training. Or maybe it is the Bharatanatyam Indian dance form as both Mythili Prakash and Pallavi Anand are trained in it. Elpida Skourou is from the Hellenic Dance Company, and works well with them.

Two vignettes are particularly memorable from the women. One where the figure of Justice is summoned up, no doubt judging past crimes. The other where the dancer spins like a mesmerizing top.

If you think this sounds like a demanding work – you are right. But sometimes the most complex games are the best ones.




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