Review: Akram Khan - Until the Lions - Roundhouse

Performance: 12 - 24 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 13 January 2016

Akram Khan, Ching-Ying Chien, Until The Lions
Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan’s latest production is an extraordinary, sensory and strangely sensual experience, which makes every capital possible from the unique opportunities provided by the special intimacy of this in-the-round space. Khan’s first foray into the world of 360° theatre achieves a memorable spectacle through a tightly-knit integration of all the creative elements. If there is a blind spot, then it is solely in terms of delivering Khan’s stated narrative intent but it works just as well without that clarity of purpose.

The enigmatic title is an allusion to the voice of the unheard. Until the Lions originates in an African proverb to the effect that the hunter always tells the story until the lions can have their say. It was used by the poet, Karthika Naïr, as the title for her recent book, Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, as a means of identifying her own purpose of reimagining this epic Sanskrit narrative from the perspective of marginal, female characters.

Khan has had a long association with the Mahabharata, beginning by being cast, as a 13 year-old, in Peter Brook’s stage production, touring the world in the late 1980s prior to appearing as the young prince, Ekalavya, in Brook’s filmed interpretation of the play; and later through dancing in his own trilogy of kathak works, inspired by stories from the Mahabharata. With a long established predilection for both the process of collaboration and this subject, basing a new dance work on Naïr’s innovative approach to the Mahabharata seems like a project that was bound to happen. Khan is responsible for direction and choreography while Naïr takes credit for the narrative concept, scenario and text.

The success of this work also has much to do with the other creative contributions, notably in the visual impact achieved by Tim Yip’s extraordinary design of an inner central stage that appears as a cross-section through an enormous tree stump, complete with ragged cracks that eventually open up to release smoke and light, fragmenting the stage into different levels. Vertical imagery is achieved through bamboo poles fixed into these cracks and around the sides, one embedded into a blue, shrunken head.

Michael Hulls’ unerring ability to achieve just the right atmosphere through the flexibility of his lighting designs hits the bulls-eye, once more. And the original music score by Beautiful Noise, the artistic name of Vincenzo Lamagna, who shares credit with various performers, is an arresting cocktail of thumping rhythms, gentle guitar and eclectic song. The production is greatly enhanced by a strong quartet of musicians (including Lamagna) and not least by the vocal power and range of David Azurza.

As well as being a first for Khan as a production, Until the Lions is also something of a first for Khan the performer, since he is not generally the centre of attention among the three dancers; the metaphorical spotlight falling more frequently upon Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter. Chien portrays Naïr’s central character, Amba, a woman who has been abducted by Bheeshma (Khan) and dedicates the rest of her life to achieving vengeance. Although there are certain obvious moments of abusive behaviour (at one point Khan pushes Chien off the central stage and onto an outer ring) and revenge (Chien knocks Khan to the floor and stands over him), the relevance of this to any particular narrative is ambiguous without prior knowledge (or subsequent research).

Chien’s performance is an eye-popping wonder. She conveys such a rich mix of emotions ranging from vulnerable innocence to determined, dark intent; but it is her spectrum of movement that is even more remarkable. She is fluid and silky-smooth but can distort her body into contortions that resemble a doll manipulated by her child-master to suck her own toe, with leg lifted behind and around her head, and then roughly discarded while stuck in that pose.

Ritter has a beautiful androgynous quality that fits her role as Shikhandi (effectively Amba transformed into a male warrior who will defeat and kill Bheeshma). In the Mahabharata, Bheeshma is killed by a combination of arrows fired from the bows of Shikhandi and Arjuna; thus bringing Khan on another 360° journey since he memorably portrayed Arjuna in Ronin (2003) and now he becomes the great archer’s victim.

I greatly enjoyed the work irrespective of its relevance to either the Mahabharata or Naïr’s reconstruction thereof. For me, the visceral intensity and primitive, tribal atmosphere made this almost as much of a tribute to the Rite of Spring as Khan’s own iTMOi, made as a tribute to Stravinsky’s ground-breaking music (iTMOi: “in the manner of Igor”) on the occasion of its centenary, in 2013. Here, the “head on the spear” image, thumping drums, ritualistic actions and the earthy relevance of the leit motif of a venerable spirit-tree all give rise to this evocation of primal sacrifice. Indeed, we might even fancifully see Chien as the Chosen One, fighting back.

In truth, it doesn’t matter how the audience interprets this sensational new work. It has a few dull moments when the arresting connection is temporarily lost but as an overall experience it is memorable dance theatre of the highest quality, even if the precise narrative purpose may not have the clarity that its makers intended.

Until the Lions continues at The Roundhouse until 24 January

Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.
Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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