Choreographer and dancer Akram Khan’s first work in the round is based on a section of Karthika Naïr’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. It is the section that retells the story in the Sanskrit epic of the revenge taken by a king’s daughter on the prince who abducts her as she chooses a husband. The title comes from an African proverb:“‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan © Jean Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan
© Jean Louis Fernandez

The set, designed by Tim Yip, is the giant cross-section of a tree, with bark at the sides and rings and cracks on its pale, flat surface. A representation of the world itself, under Michael Hulls’ lighting it brings organic warmth to the brick, concrete and glass of the enormous, 19th-century railway engine shed that is The Roundhouse. Four musicians sit at different points outside the circular structure, looking up at the three dancers (one of them the 41-year-old Akram Kahn) and sometimes using their ‘miked up’ voices to interact with them. Like the dancers, the musicians are dressed in soft, loose garments, but of darker shades.

Ching-Ying Chien © Jean Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien
© Jean Louis Fernandez

When he was thirteen, Akram Khan performed in Peter Brook’s version of the Mahabharata. In the programme notes to Until the Lions he tells theatre director Danny Boyle: “Looking back, I can see that it gave a very male perspective, which is often the case with mythology.” With this new production, Khan places the women in the foreground. Akram Khan Company dancers Ching-Ying Chien, as the king’s daughter whose period of penance unbalances the universe, and Christine Joy Ritter, as a mythological creature who slithers on to the stage to begin the piece, are interesting to watch. But they are not quite interesting enough, or do not have enough history in their bodies, to sustain so long a work – one hour, with no interval – in so large a space.

This is made all the more obvious by the increase in energy levels every time that Akram Khan himself appears and begins to dance. The contact that his kathak-trained feet make with the floor gives new meaning to the word ‘spin’, when he spins. His hands, too, are exceptionally alive as he uses them to mask his face. In their duets, Ching-Ying Chien has at least the chance to engage in a dialogue of the feet, and to show dramatic range. She pleads; she throws herself at her partner’s body; at one point she pushes him from the stage.

Christine Joy Ritter, Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan © Jean Louis Fernandez
Christine Joy Ritter, Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan
© Jean Louis Fernandez

Khan’s presence unbalances the piece, if you like. When he is not there, it sags. In the circular setting, both music and choreography seem to revolve around an emptiness or lack. At times the set itself seems about to provide the missing element. The cracks in the floor move apart; the different sections rise up like tectonic plates. It is only after a series of almost-climaxes that the final climax of revenge does occur. This has its power, but one which is more to do with lighting and design than with dance.