Primitive and powerful, Akram Khan’s Until the Lions plunges into an overwhelming battle for revenge and female dominance. Designed by Tim Yip for the Roundhouse, the circular amphitheatre-like set of a large, cracked tree trunk lures its onlookers into a ritualistic world, heightened by the atmospheric live percussion and singing. A thrilling performance that inflicts goose bumps, a few tears, and a sudden desire to take up dancing.
Combining contemporary and the classical Indian dance form, kathak, Akram Khan’s choreography emotively tells the mythical story of Amba from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic poem. Amba kills herself in order to avenge her abductor, Bheeshma, and is reincarnated as the male warrior, Shikhandi. Khan’s production is inspired by Karthika Nair’s 2015 reinterpretation, which gives voice to female characters whose identities were on the fringes of the narrative. Khan recalls performing in Peter Brook’s 1989 film version and his close relationship with the female actors: ‘they were not the main protagonists. Looking back, I can see that it gave a very male perspective’.
Both Khan and Nair thus seek to reconcile the stories of these females; the ‘unsung heroes’ within patriarchal society. Whilst entering the Roundhouse and taking our seats, destruction is forewarned by spears that pierce the tree stump, violent storm-like rumbling, and a blue spotlight pointing to a decapitated head. The set goes on to become a breathing battleground for Amba to be recognised beyond her role as a female victim. Ching-Yin Chien portrays her fierce character magnificently. Her expression of feminine and delicate movements are offset by quick spins, stamping feet, and unsettling gestures, which reach their pinnacle upon transforming into Shikhandi. This underlying ferocity is emphasised by the red underskirt of her white dress. Christine Joy Ritter’s portrayal of Shikhandi further exceeds limiting gender stereotypes, and is at once human and bestial. The two become a multifaceted warrior through striking synchronised movements making them a dominating force; Amba holds a ravenous dog-like Shikhandi back from Khan’s arrogant and aggressive Bheeshma.
Although Khan presents a world very different from our own, the live music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna greatly heightens the emotions of the choreography, inviting us to have an empathic response to Amba’s victory against the rules of an unjust society. She dances and gallops around the perimeter of the circular set, triumphant and carefree, casting a mythical spell on a 21st century audience.
23rd January 2016
Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Until the Lions – Akram Khan – The Roundhouse, London