Akram Khan ‘Until the Lions’: work narrated by the music, the collaborative relationship between each beat, rhythm and melody

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

Walking through the auditorium doors, into the great Roundhouse theatre, I feel as though I am entering an arena for battle. Emerging into a shadowy stadium, vast and wooden, I am towered over by columns and seats from all sides, combining the old and the new.

The open space is filled with a pounding, eerie drone. Smoke dances slowly in the space above the stage, which resembles the round intersection of an aged tree trunk. The concentric circles of growth rings made imperfect by deep cracks across the stump, with spears of bamboo striking out of the gaps at various angles.

Silhouettes of other audience members across the space can only just be seen through the slow swirling fog of smoke and shadowy yellow lights which fall down from above the circumference of the stump. On stage, lit with a blue light, is the severed head of a man. Before the dancing begins, the atmosphere created by the physical setting and ominous music already has my mind racing.

Taking inspiration from Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, thought to have been written some 2,000 years ago, poet Kathika Naïr reworked the narrative of one of the stories from a female perspective.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

As in the majority of Indian classics, the original poem centres on male heroes. Although the women are fundamental to the narrative, their under-developed characters are reduced to supporting, background figures.

Naïr set out to address this imbalance in, Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, a collection of poems based on the female perspectives in the Mahabharata. She explores notions of gender and time in a battle for justice and liberty.

Khan’s full length dance work, Until the Lions, is based on Naïr’s poetic reworking. The story is physically expressed by the three main characters; the warrior Bheeshma, danced by Khan; Princess Amba, danced by Ching-Ying Chien; and the gender transforming, reborn princess, Shikhandi, danced by Christine Joy Ritter.

The African proverb from which title of these poems was found; ‘Until the lions have their own historians, history will always glorify the hunter’, suggests a story is not complete ‘until the lions have their say’. In this story, the lions are the silenced women, Amba and Shikhandi.

In a current social climate of outstanding efforts for gender equality, the reworking of this historical myth is as pertinent as ever. Khan has responded to his recognition of the lack of representation of women throughout the canon of art and literature.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

In a previous interview, he has expressed his admiration for female figures, describing them as the ‘unsung heroes, the figures of strength and imagination and endurance’. The lack of appreciation for the stories of such undiscovered heroines concerns Khan, perhaps even more so now he is a family man himself.

This could be the reason behind Khan’s positive diversion away from his previous tradition of choreographing the leading figure as a man. For the first time in his work, he tells a story through the voice of a woman.

Princess Amba is abducted by Bheeshma on her wedding day, destroying her honour. Rendered unmarriageable, and seeking revenge, she kills herself. Reborn as the warrior, Shikhandi, the heroine is able to use the power of the Gods to change gender in order to defeat Bheeshma in battle.

Like a big cat hunting at dawn, a figure creeps through the hazy light of the entrance tunnel and onto the trunk before the lights of the auditorium fade; a sure way to silence the talkative crowd.

Petit, but fiercely strong, Shikhandi explores her habitat, experimenting with the possible ways to move her body across the wooden floor. The supple use of this character’s spine and shoulder blades add to the animalistic imagery, reminiscent of the protruding shoulders blades of a prowling big cat. She is able to invert and hinge her body in unnatural directions, spider-walking across the stage and producing unsettlingly unusual shapes.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

The movements of all the dancers throughout the work are three dimensional, which can be observed in greater clarity in the intimate round setting of the theatre. The dancers use all of the space in their kinesphere, resulting in exciting material.

Khan is renowned for his innovative choreography. A leading figure in the contemporary dance world at present, he continues to develop fresh new material in his works through his complex style; which has evolved from his training in both Kathak and contemporary dance. Questioning the fundamentals of each, he both develops and challenges what has already been done, in order to explore the unfamiliar possibilities of the future.

Shikhandi lifts the severed head from its previously untouched position on the ground, which at first appears to be weighty. An eerie whispering begins to diffuse into the space as we nervously await her intentions.

As she confidently spears the head onto the end of a bamboo stick, a fog horn sound boldly infiltrates the space. Grasping the stick adorned with the severed head, she parades like a patriotic flag bearer.

This is only the beginning of a work which exhibits the true strength and power of women seeking vengeance.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

As the other two dancers enter, we witness the capture. Bheeshma flings Amba over his shoulders as the musicians repeatedly bellow.

This new female character – even more petit and with long dark hair – performs an enticing solo. Physically responding to the beat and jingle of the live music, she is somehow fluid yet percussive. She moves with an innocent lightness as Khan prowls around her, circling the circumference of the trunk. Amba appears to be a naïve young lady, but is soon to be exposed to the vicious acts that are foreshadowed before her entrance.

The lenses in my eyes constantly chase the dancers, willing to keep up with their stealthy speed. Like a camera with a slow shutter speed, photographing a fast vehicle; the swift moving limbs of the dancers leave a trail of motion in my vision.

This work is narrated by the music, not only through words and the singing, but the collaborative relationship between each beat, rhythm and melody, and the dancers’ movements and qualities. Their physical execution appears to be controlled by whatever the musicians play.

The reoccurring recital of the words ‘time to begin’, ‘begin to begin’, and ‘begin to end’ were particularly poignant. At his opening night performance in the Roundhouse, the words are not only related to this artistically acclaimed work, but to the circular journey and conclusion of this show for Akram Khan.

The Roundhouse is where ‘Until the Lions’ began its journey back in 2016. And now, in 2019, Khan prepares for the beginning of the end of his performing role in this piece. At the same location, Khan takes on this role for the final time.  

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

Khan’s duet with the dancer playing Amba is emotionally driven. He rejects her affections with stealthy movements, communicating a confusion about the complex emotion of love. Her persistence, despite Bheeshma’s repeated rejection, leads them to a brief circling triplet duet to a romantic waltzing rhythm.

This leads to a floor duet in which the two bodies are joined at the pelvis to create what appears to be one conjoined body. It seems Amba has wriggled into Bheeshma’s life following her capture, both physically and emotionally. Despite his vow of celibacy, the temptation is consuming.

As Amba makes her decision to seek revenge in another life, the traumatic effects of the torment and dishonour is exposed. She appears insane, with a mad kind of happiness in her eyes that seems to come from the twisted pleasure of seeking vengeance.

Her long dark hair often covers her face, reminiscent of a child from a horror movie as her features are drowned behind thick long locks.

Her flowing hair has also been used in this section to add to the uncontrollable sense of madness as she pulls it tightly above her head. Staring into the audience, right in my direction, eyes which communicate a sense of insanity and a fierce determination for war are exposed and piercing.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

This work uses the story of these characters in a narrative which may not closely link to modern western society: in order to communicate the familiar human emotions of love, loss, betrayal, and rage, which may be applied to almost any culture and society across the globe.

Khan does a wonderful job at stripping back the unimportant details of the narrative in order to convey the true essence and emotion of the story. The full effect of this careful balance is one that has the ability to both thrill audiences and somehow connect with them through clearly separate worlds.

For example, the reincarnated princess is a powerful and agile figure. So passionate to win a battle that is deeply personal, the animalistic movements become sporadic and experimental.

The images in the work remain powerful until the end. As the work concludes, we witness Khan wriggling helplessly down a sloped segment of the tree stump, which rises and falls in separate plates during the performance. The victorious women – Shikhandi and the shadow of Amba guiding her – look down from the summit, clutching the spear topped with his severed head. As Khan reaches the top he meets his fate.

Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan: Until the Lions. Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

The dominating power of the female warrior forcefully reverses Bheeshma’s role in the battle. Shikhandi treats him with the same disregard and aggression he had previously exerted on Amba. This transformation leaves me thinking, ‘touché’; this strong female character will certainly not be controlled.

After Khan is defeated, we see his dark, motionless silhouette, towered by the petit figure with long dark hair, at the summit of the smoking remains of a battlefield. A glimpse of light glistening through the cracks in the earth.

We see love and loss. The anger is no longer prominent. Justice had to be served, yet all we are left with is a lonely reality. The warrior is emotionless; fulfilling her task, but not outwardly satisfied.

Originally premiered on 12th January 2016 at London’s Roundhouse theatre, Until the Lions returns to this distinctive circular stage from 11th to 17th January 2019 for Khan’s final performance in the role of Bheeshma.  His final six performances will take place where the journey of the universally acclaimed work began. One of the most captivating dancers in the world of contemporary dance, it is an honour to have witnessed one of his final performances in such a powerful work.

Reviewed on 11th of January at Roundhouse Theatre