Until the Lions

Choreography and direction Akram Khan; narrative concept, scenario and text Karthika Naïr
Akram Khan Company

Christine Joy Ritter, Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan and Christine Joy Ritter in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan and Ching-Ying Chien in Until the Lions Credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan admits he imbibed much from Peter Brook when he was chosen at the age of thirteen to perform in his version of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, and it shows. But he can’t help complicating where Brook simplifies.

Four musicians ranged like a chorus around a circular arena, three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter) on it—a Greek drama in essence, a community exorcising its demons. Atmospheric lighting by Michael Hulls, concentric circles of light delineate the empty space; singing, heavy percussion and an electronic hum fill the Roundhouse drum.

Look closer and the stage is a stump of a huge tree—a sequoia perhaps—the tree of life with cracks meandering like oxbow rivers across it. Bamboo canes and a wizened black head litter the terrain—significant symbols and mysterious metaphors.

Later these ‘Shibboleth’ (remember the Dolores Salcedo fissure in Tate Modern) cracks will open the earth’s buckling crust, smoke will rise and molten lava be visible as the climax of a great battle comes to its end, a woman’s battle invoking the gods against the man who abducted her.

Khan, taking Karthika Naïr’s poetic verse reimaging of the story of the woman Amba become the male/female warrior Shikhandi in her new book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, gives centre stage to the two female characters, himself playing Bheeshma, the abductor.

The complexity of the tale, more convoluted than dance can transmit, is explained in programme notes; without them I’m not sure how much one would grasp of the trio’s relationship on stage, powerful though it is. Basically, Bheeshma abducts Amba not for himself—he has sworn celibacy—but for his half-brother.

She loves another, so Bheeshma releases her, but her secret love spurns her, tainted as she is. She swears to take revenge on Bheeshma. Lord Shiva says she can only do it in the next life. She immolates herself, is reborn as Shikhandi, a woman made man by a forest spirit, and kills Bheeshma in a blizzard of arrows.

Rarely told from the women’s point of view, this extract from the epic tale explicates the title, an African proverb: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Here the female lions get their chance. And do they take it—Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter are magnificent. Astonishing in their yogic flexibility, martial arts power and control, the choreography a gift to them from Khan.

Khan graciously allows himself to be upstaged, though he is as usual an immaculately expressive performer. It’s as if he is taking leave of the stage. Christine Joy Ritter as the androgynous warrior Shikhandi and Ching-Ying Chien as the delicate Amba crawl like Komodo dragons (remind me of Khan’s technê for Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress farewell production), fight like Shaolin monks, ferocious, focused, furious.

A rhythmic ritualistic life’s pulse drama, reaching its climax in a maelstrom of dance, there’s a persistent beauty in Khan’s choreography with its signature of swift kathak, calligraphic form and musical sensitivity, but I’m not entirely sure about the cohesion of Until the Lions: there are longueurs in its sixty minutes.

Primitive, animalistic forces, it reminds me of Khan’s 2013 iTMOi production (the two women performed in that, too). Obscure gestures, hands masking faces, love tussles (amazing duet between Khan and Ching-Ying Chien, legs wrapped around each others waists making an indivisible beast of two heads), actions spilling outside the perimeter of the stage, inner turmoil, ululations…

Tectonic plates shift, epic songs are sung (if only one understood the words), musicians Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and composer of original score Vincenzo Lamagna (also aptly known as Beautiful Noise) are outstanding, Tim Yip’s visual design makes one think appositely of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Kathryn Hunter’s voiceover intones "begin to act, it is time": this overarching ambitious indulgent tangle of elements takes some unpicking.

Perhaps it’s best to read the programme notes beforehand, or maybe not try and follow a narrative or try to unravel its symbolism, but view Until the Lions as an abstract work of art, which also claims to explore “the notion and physical expression of gender and the changes that time forces on the body”. I’m taking away the jaw-dropping intensity of Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter’s haunting performances.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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