What's a woman to do when she loses agency over her body? Is gender just a construct? And at point does justice sour into something closer to revenge?

Akram Khan's most recent piece, Until the Lions, begs all those questions and more, with his potent retelling of the epic poem, the Mahabharata. Over 2,500 years old, the Mahabharata is a sprawling narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes. And when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling; the Mahabharata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

© Tristram Kenton
© Tristram Kenton

In his choreographic reimagining of the tale, Khan focuses on one of the lesser-known characters of the Mahabharata; the princess Amba.

Abducted on her wedding day by the princely warrior Bheeshma, she ends up falling in love with him only to be rejected for a vow of chastity. She goes back to her village, where she is further rejected by her family, friends, and her betrothed. Her life, in short, is in ruins. Amba prays for answers in the inky silence of the mountains, but the stillness becomes so all-encompassing that it threatens to wreck havoc on the world. The gods intervene and grant her wish for retribution, however, in order to fight Bheeshma and claim her revenge, Amba must die, be reborn and transition into a man. The story – as with all good stories – is deeply specific in subject but universal in theme.

Akram Khan asks a lot of his audience with Until the Lions; a suspension of disbelief that not many choreographers working today would dare to demand. Generally speaking, most contemporary choreographer steer clear of narrative altogether. But Khan's work is so surefooted and self-assured that he pulls the viewer along with him effortlessly.

Until the Lions features a cast of three supremely talented dancers. Akram Khan himself dances the role of Bheeshma, offering a characterization that is less “godlike regent” and more "deeply flawed individual questions his choices." The nuanced approach gives the story some dimension and relevence. Ching-Ying Chien as Amba is light and strong as a willow branch, and her performance was both tragic and breathtaking. Christine Joy Ritter was frankly terrifying as Amba's masculine embodiment, her earthy angularity and strength creating a movement language all of her own. The hairs on the back of my neck raised, unbidden, on more than one occasion.

© Tristram Kenton.
© Tristram Kenton.

The dancers are joined by four excellent musicians; Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Joseph Ashwin. They added so much to Until the Lions; sometimes adding a kind of Greek chorus functionality to their performance. The music itself was sublime. 

Khan's signature choreographic style – a weaving together of Indian kathak and contemporary dance – is well balanced throughout the one-hour piece. The work is full of tenderness, violence and a complex layering of identity; the characters constantly “unmask” themselves and others with their movements, shedding their skins like snakes even as their confusion of purpose mounts. “Who am I now? Who is she? What does this all mean?"

In one moment, Khan, as Bheesma, hunkers down on his haunches as Chien entwines her limbs around his, and the two stalk across the stage as one mythical, two-backed beast. In another, he contemplates the vision of his own disemodied head impaled on a stick above him. The imagery is potent and sometimes disturbing.

Until the Lions was created at London's Roundhouse Theatre last year, with rehearsals filmed on four sides to ensure the choreography would read well from every vantage point; a huge challenge for choreographer, performer and set designer. Since then, a proscenium arch version of the show has been presented at several venues internationally, but Montreal audiences were lucky enough to see it in-the-round, as it was originally concepted.

The bold set, designed by Tim Yip (Oscar-winning art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) ressembles the cross-section of an ancient tree trunk, which gives a nice sense of the passage of time and its importance to this story.

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” goes the Ugbo proverb. In this case, Khan and his excellent team have become historians themselves, unearthing new material out of an ancient text and offering it up for a re-examination that feels thoroughly contemporary in scope. See it if you can.