REVIEW: In Outwitting the Devil (2019), Akram Khan reinterprets King Gilgamesh’s failed quest for immortality in th… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
The Prickle (@ThePrickle) November 27, 2021
When superstar choreographer Akram Khan set out to make a piece about modernity’s loss of myth and man’s disastrous drive to conquer nature, it was the perfect choice to reach for the Epic of Gilgamesh, our oldest surviving legend. In Outwitting the Devil (2019), Khan reinterprets King Gilgamesh’s failed quest for immortality in the light – or rather, retina-melting nuclear flash – of our impending climate disaster.
Perhaps it is no surprise, given the subject matter, that Outwitting the Devil is disturbing, disconcerting and utterly compelling. Dancers glitch from elephant, to tiger, to man, and back again. Kali, goddess both of death and motherhood, compels their movements with elaborate hand gestures. As a young girl with long hair enacts a thrillingly brutal rite to raise the dead, one could almost be watching a horror movie. In all, I counted three deaths, two resurrections and one human sacrifice.
The cast vary in age from their 20s to their 60s, and hail from traditions ranging from Filipino to Indian to British street dance. Their movements are often gloriously inhuman, although whether they convey animal or monster is sometimes hard to discern. Dramatic top lighting masks their faces and accentuates every muscle and rib on their torsos, imparting a lean, ghoulish look.
The score is portentous, sinister and often exhilarating, regularly building with nail-biting crescendos. It features electric guitars, the static of black boxes rescued from crash sites, and driving strings which stand in for performers’ screams. Smoke simultaneously evokes wildfires and offerings to the gods, while row after row of black boxes symbolise humanity’s imposition on nature.
Outwitting the Devil marries all the visceral intensity of man’s earliest myths, with the urgency of a very modern existential threat. Beautiful, strange and utterly current – this is not a performance you will forget.
At the beginning of Outwitting the Devil (2019) by Akram Khan (part of his Carnival of Shadows trilogy, currently running at Sadler’s Wells), the dancers materialise on stage, slowly emerging from the darkness. And at the end, just like they arrived, they disappear by dissolving into darkness once again.
The show is framed like a dream, in which the supernatural, eerie (and loud) sounds, and terrifying creatures try to have the upper hand on the main character, the young man whose dream we are presented with. At times haunting and disturbing, and inspired by the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the show feels like a series of allegories: the struggle between good and evil, the arrogance of mankind to assert its power over nature, the sorrow of losing a loved one. As Khan puts it in the programme, his aim is to explore “old and new myths in the context of our times.”
The dancing is pure Akram Khan, spanning twisted, spasmodic moves and elegant borrowings from Indian kathak. Among the highlights is a mimed series of animals (tiger, elephant, gazelle, dragonfly), called out in French by a voice offstage and vividly reproduced through movement by the dancers.
From soundless screaming to face-tearing anguish, and from violent strangling to scorpion-like fighting, Outwitting the Devil is a memorable performance, where the macabre meets with the universal, transporting the audience into the uncanny world of myth.
Playing 23 – 27 November 2021 at Sadler’s Wells.