Congratulations Talking Pointes Podcast, awarded bronze medal for Best Arts & Culture Podcast! Listen here
Akram Khan
Akram Khan and Ching-Ying Chien in “Until the Lions.” Credit Jean Louis Fernandez

Fire and Ice

Akram Khan's “Until the Lions”

Performance
Akram Khan: “Until the Lions”
Place
The Roundhouse, London, UK, January 9-23, 2016
Words
Sara Veale

Mystic, vibrant, violent, feminist—Akram Khan’s newest work is all this and more. The hour-long piece stars Khan himself alongside Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter, and takes its inspiration from Karthika Naïr’s 2015 collection of poems Until the Lions, a reinterpretation of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic. This postmodern narrative layering—in which mythology is reframed through a modern literary lens and then channeled through a prism of contemporary dance, itself informed, in this case, by kathak tradition—lends a rich complexity to the work, one that’s felt in many aspects, from the stratified music to the mosaic sequencing.

Naïr’s title comes from an African proverb that highlights the age-old edict that history favours the victors: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Her retelling is a distinctly feminist one that seeks to empower the marginalised female voices in the Mahabharata—a mission Khan’s work builds on by focusing on the story of Amba, a princess whose marriageability is nullified when she’s kidnapped by Bheeshma, the son of another king. Amba dedicates the rest of her life to avenging this injustice and gets her chance for retaliation when she is reborn as Shikhandi, a female warrior with the ability to take male form. The original tale concludes with Shikhandi and a male relative slaying Bheeshma; however, Khan’s version, like in Naïr’s, reimagines Shikhandi alone taking him down.

Khan brings precision and force to his turn as Bheeshma, channeling quiet, potent masculinity in his imperious posture and cold, unyielding stare. Chien’s Amba, meanwhile, is fire where he is ice, her spirited mien lit with the heat of fury and determination. Rarely still, she strums with vitality, churning out electric bursts of wild spins and flung limbs.

And then there’s Ritter’s haunting Shikhandi, whose momentum transcends that of both Bheeshma and Amba. The mythic figure is magnetic in her oddity, a gripping life force with a battery of disquieting positions: a baboon-like stance on all fours, a crouched warrior pose, with a spear in hand. Ritter and Chien strike an impressive equilibrium cemented by a mutual sturdiness: both remain steady even when it feels like they’re being moved by forces outside themselves, and each dances with her whole self, right down to her fingertips and toes. Even Chien’s hair prickles with energy as she whips her long mane around.

All three dancers observe a core-driven movement vocabulary that frequently features precise hand placements and rhythmic footwork—nods to Khan’s kathak background. The choreography is demanding and tumultuous: Khan has no qualms throwing scenes into chaos and reducing the dancers, himself included, to violent tangles of limbs on the floor. His partnerwork is particularly well conceived and makes intriguing use of negative space. One of the show’s enduring images is Khan hunkered on all fours, Chien strung face-down underneath him, her back arched and legs wrapped around his waist.

All this action works beautifully in the round at Camden’s Roundhouse theatre. The stage is designed as a giant tree stump, with age rings and fissures that let in clouds of mist and slivers of warm light. A brilliant four-piece band borders it throughout, encircling the dancers with a spell of pounding drums, spitfire chants and soaring vocals—complements to a crackling electronic soundscape. It’s altogether exhilarating stuff, bristling with tension and casting an eye towards social justice—a perfectly modern ode to the mythology that inspires it.