Kill your darlings. It is a piece of advice choreographers often hear while creating a new work. The assumption is that by killing your darlings, you strengthen the result. But in Akram Khan’s latest work, Outwitting the Devil(created for the Avignon Festival 2019), the phrase takes on a completely different meaning.
Killing our darlings is what we, mankind, are actually doing to our planet that we claim to love and value so much. Somehow this destructive inclination is ingrained in our brain, says Khan, who draws a parallel with the age-old myth of king Gilgamesh. Desiring immortality, Gilgamesh kills a savage creature living in the forest, the one person who could give him precisely that.
When the curtain rises, the stage is dark, the soundscape (by Vincenzo Lamagna) ominous. It remains that way till the end. Slowly the six marvellous dancers appear, each portraying a character in this tale of desire and destruction. The story, however, remains rather sketchy – only the main figures, Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu, are more or less recognizable. But it is sufficient, because the scenes in which Enkidu is caught and tamed by Gilgamesh and eventually perishes, are eloquent and sometimes really disturbing. They are long sequences in which the savages fight and squirm desperately to free themselves, to no avail.
We see an old king (Dominique Petit) reminiscing about his choices and where they went wrong, while his younger, muscular alter ego (Sam Asa Pratt, whose hip-hop background is evident in his subtle popping and locking) chases the free forest spirits. These two, Jasper Nervaez and James Vu Ahn, show jaw-dropping control, and witnessing their suppleness and technical virtuosity contained by the ‘crude’ Pratt is a painful symbolic portrayal of what we are doing to our surroundings.
So far, the story is clear. It takes some effort to recognize the elegant bharata natyam dancer Mythili Prakash as the embodiment of nature’s beauty and fragility, and the same goes for Ching-Ying Chien, who supposedly dances the goddess of war and sex, Ishtar.
But then, who cares? These six dancers, each with a different background in training, make you forget about the not-so-evident dramaturgic line, or the fact that the all-over tempo of the choreography is a bit flat. Notwithstanding the sense of threat and immanent disaster that pervades the performance, you are tempted to just sit, admire and enjoy.