Akram Khan is an award-winning choreographer, an extraordinary dancer and the Artistic Director of the London based Akram Khan Company, founded in 2000. He is one of the most respected artists working today with fifteen years’ experience creating works that include DESH, iTMOi, Vertical Road, Gnosis and Zero Degrees. Khan is also known for his collaborations with other talented artists from different backgrounds and cultures.

© jean Louis Fernandez
© jean Louis Fernandez

Inspired by the book of poems by the same name, written by Indian born Karthika Naïr, Until the Lions tells the story of the Mahābhārata, an epic narrative of the Kuruksetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pāndava princess Amba who is abducted by the warrior Bheeshma. The Mahābhārata is attributed to Vyāsa and considered to be one of the longest poems ever written.

Khan’s Until the Lions is a full-length dance theater work that begins with the abduction of Amba, her imprisonment by Bheeshma, and after she kills herself, her reincarnation as Shikhandi. It is the feminine telling of the Mahābhārata.

Made possible by The Music Center On Location™ and Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center, Until the Lions is presented inside a very large studio at The Culver Studios in Culver City. The set consists of one very large flat stump of an ancient tree trunk pierced with spears from the battles of war. Bluish smoke wisps throughout the area and a lone severed head sits bathed in an eerie blue down spot. Just prior to the players entering, the studio begins to vibrate with the rumbling drone-like score by Vincenzo Lamagna that intensifies and recedes in volume.

A lone figure (Joy Alpuerto Ritter) quietly slithers onto the stage with movements that resemble an animal or warrior covertly surveying the fields of battle, looking for the dead. It is difficult to tell if this creature is warrior or demon; or both. The creature removes the spears and places them just off stage before picking up the severed head and mounting it on top of another spear. As he/she does so, we hear the chanting of “It is time. It is time to begin, to begin.” With that, the musicians, who have ceremoniously entered, begin to sing and play as Bheesham (Khan) runs in with the abducted Amba (Ching-Ying Chien).

Bheesham seems to draw his power from the severed head as he struggles with Amba and the captor begins to fall in love with his prisoner. Khan’s choreography has glimpses of traditional Indian dance, but it also takes on a more mystic feel with deep lunges, gnarled limbs and crablike moves along the floor. All this driven by the drumming and haunting vocals of British singer Sohini Alam, tenor David Azurza, percussionist Yaron Engler, and guitarist Joseph Ashwin.

© Jean Louis Fernandez
© Jean Louis Fernandez

Khan’s recreation of Naïr’s poetry and the epic Mahābhārata has a starkness to it, but it is rich in movement, taut stillness and emotions that move through terror, lust, love, anger and revenge. The Visual Design by Tim Yip turns a large section of the tree stump into a gaping inferno as Amba is reincarnated and takes her revenge. The lighting by Michael Hulls is breathtaking as it shifts between shadows and erupting caverns. Lamagna’s score captures Khan’s vision and becomes part of the narrative.

Ching-Ying Chien is amazing in the role of Amba. Her death solo is a true tour de force as her body almost literally turns itself inside out. She moves with the swiftness of wind only to stop suddenly, perched on one leg without a tremor; her long black hair a beautiful tool in Khan’s choreography.

The final dance between Chien, Khan and Ritter is stunning. We see the attraction that has developed between Bheesham and Amba. It is overpowered by Amba’s desire for revenge, aided by her reincarnated self, Shikhandi. The climax involves the entire cast of seven. The tree again splits open and, as they sing and play instruments, the musicians toss a multitude of bamboo spears onto the stage, creating another layer of sound. Bheesham dies at the hands of Shikhandi and his beloved Amba as she stands triumphant.

Khan is a powerful force onstage. His energy never wavers and through his strong acting talents, he artfully portrays the many emotional layers of the warrior Bheesham. Joy Alpuerto Ritter has the physicality of a break dancer and the litheness of a panther. Ching-Ying Chien is matchless with her amazing performance. She manages to physically transform herself without the aid of anything other than her artistry.

Until the Lions is an enriching experience. Khan and his extraordinarily creative team take the audience into an alternative realm, breathing life into a mythical tale. The choreography is organic, extremely physical and daring. If possible, go see Akram Khan’s Until the Lions.