Dancing on the stage of life: a reflection on Akram Khan’s XENOS

By Zipei Tang (GTU Doctoral student)
At the beginning of March, the cold, rainy winter season of the Bay Area had put my body in a dormant state. When I saw the title of CARe’s event, “Exploration of Spirituality and Storytelling in Dance,” I heard the bell to wake up my body. I learned that this event was a prelude to a series of events surrounding Akram Khan’s dance performance XENOS provided by CARe in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances.
As I walked towards CARe’s Doug Adams Gallery on an overcast Saturday morning, I set the intention to let my body revive her expressive potential, engage more in my narrative of life and to savor the joy of creative movements. The experience of the workshop started before I stepped into the door of the gallery. An invitation compelled me to choose an item and take it as my dancing prop; either a rock, feather or candle. This simple choice instantly evoked my intuitive self, I followed the moment and picked up a feather, with the hope that it would bring lightness to my heart.
The workshop started with an introduction by Dr. Michelle T. Summers, (UC Berkeley Theater, Dance and Performance Studies/CARe), allowing me to locate myself more intimately in the setting of the gallery space. Then dancers Carla DeSola and David McCauley took over the space, leading the participants out of our chairs and setting us free from our bodies. We were guided through opening movements and encouraged to use our bodies to form a statue, inspired by the object we had selected. In these plays of dynamics and stillness, our bodies wove narratives together.
My favorite part of the workshop was led by kathak dancer, educator, and choreographer Charlotte Moraga, Director of the Chitresh Das Institute. As a student of Yoga, I am fascinated by Hindu mythology. Charlotte showed us two dances, one of Shiva, which integrates the symbols of His majestic cosmic creating-destruction cycle and the other of Krishna, which carries in it the spirit of the Divine player. My interest in dance has always been related to my spirituality. I believe there is a mystical dimension to our bodies, and artistic movements create the meeting point for the divine spirit and physical consciousness. By imitating Charlotte’s movement, I felt a sense of divine embodiment as the vitality of the myth entered my own body.  This experience made me decide to change my afternoon plans and take Charlotte’s longer kathak workshop, held in the studio of Zellberbach Hall.
Trying out kathak dance was great fun. I felt that I was radically inhabiting my body as we learned how to use our feet as drum beats, to clap our hands and recite rhythmic poetry, and to perform the basic gestures of kathak. I was impressed by the profound history behind the kathak tradition and became more excited to see the integration of this ancient form of art with contemporary dance in Khan’s XENOS.
The performance of XENOS was intense; the dreadful theme of World War I was brought into the time-space of the dance so vividly that it was almost brutal. Khan clearly expressed the struggle of a human soul amid massive destruction and desperation. While sitting in Zellerbach Hall, I felt a deep appreciation for the pre-events that built up to the show. The interactive nature of the programs gave me a taste of the role of the performer, telling stories, conveying emotions and making meaning of life. Throughout this process I learned to pay reverence to the embodiment of the spirit of humanity.

The entire experience inspired me to reflect that all our bodies are dancing on the stage of life, as a way of telling the stories of our individuality and the collective story of our time. It left me questioning how we can practice to be a better dancer of life and how we can become a better dance partner and audience for others.  

Thank you to Sabrina Klein, Director of Artistic Literacy at Cal Performances, for making this event possible. Thanks also to Laura Abrams, David McCauley, Michelle Summers and Carla DeSola for all their help in making this fantastic program a reality!