This performance, returning to the Roundhouse, three years (minus a day) after its world première in the same space, completes a remarkable journey around the world: ‘around’ in all senses, since it seems that wherever a performance can be viewed through 360°, then Until the Lions has been there. It's now coming home to where it all began, closing another circle.

Akram Khan Company, <i>Until the Lions</i> © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company, Until the Lions
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

The impulse for this journey has been Karthika Naïr’s reimagining of the Mahabharata from a perspective of marginal, female characters, in her 2015 book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. This enigmatic title alludes to the voices of the unrepresented, originating in an African proverb – ‘Until the Lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’

Akram Khan has significant previous experience with the Mahabharata. He was cast, in his early teens, to appear in Peter Brook’s staged production, prior to playing the young prince, Ekalavya, in the 1989 filmed adaptation. Several years later, Khan danced in his own trilogy of kathak works, inspired by stories from the epic Sanskrit narrative, which has returned – like handfuls of dust – as a thematic association in many of his other works.

The outcome of this Khan/Naïr collaboration – he is director, choreographer and performer, she is responsible for concept, scenario and text – remains an extraordinary theatrical experience: mesmerising, atmospheric, sensory and strangely sensual; gloriously enhanced by the special intimacy of this in-the-round space. Sitting in the front row, a friend remarked that it was the next best thing to having Khan dance in her living room!

In fact, Khan is not by any means the star of this show. There are seven performers – four labelled as musicians and three as dancers – but it is a seamless septet, without ingrained distinctions. The musicians commune with the dancers, encouraging them as if braying spectators around a gladiatorial ring, but also through permeable, physical interactions.

Akram Khan Company, <i>Until the Lions</i> © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company, Until the Lions
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

In keeping with Naïr’s concept, the dance spotlight is largely occupied by two women, Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto Ritter. Chien is Amba, a princess who has been abducted by Bheeshma (Khan as a celibate, monkish warrior, mixing piety and fearsomeness) and she dedicates herself to vengeance, being reborn as Shikhandi (a male warrior), portrayed by Ritter.

For their original performances, Chien and Ritter were both nominated for the Outstanding Modern Performance, in the National Dance Awards of 2016, which was won by the former (in the slightly more prominent role). Both dancers convey a rich mix of emotions and intense, consistent, extraordinary qualities of movement: Chien makes the vulnerability of distorted, angular actions seem consistently fluid and beautiful; Ritter brings androgynous, sinister stealth to her revengeful intent. Each has a long, descriptive solo that is arrestingly performed.

Khan’s tremendous success over the past 20 years has invariably been built on long-standing and effective collaborations and this is another tightly-knit integration of many creative inputs. The evocative atmosphere is fuelled by Tim Yip’s extraordinary inner circle, a cross-section through an enormous tree stump, complete with ragged cracks that eventually open up to create uneven levels, releasing smoke and light. Vertical imagery is given effect through upright bamboo poles, one of which becomes the spike on which an incredibly realistic blue, shrunken head is impaled. Michael Hulls’ mastery of suggestive lighting enhances the illusion of an ancient, ritualistic space in the centre of this modern theatre.

The original music was composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, sharing credit with five of the performers, including Khan and Ritter, and it provides an arresting cocktail of dynamic, thumping rhythms, lyrical guitar and gritty song. The vocal power and huge range of David Azurza (a dead ringer for John Malkovich) is stunning, and taken together with the charismatic drumming of Yaron Engler, the guitar playing of Joseph Ashwin, the singing of Sohini Alam, and Lamagna’s diverse digital augmentations, the musical performance is integral to the success of this expressive and absorbing dance theatre. Any time the suspicion of a lull in momentum arose, the musicians were guaranteed to shock us back into the moment.

Akram Khan Company, <i>Until the Lions</i> © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Akram Khan Company, Until the Lions
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

If I have a criticism, it is just that the character arcs are not always obvious without prior knowledge or homework, although, even if the precise narrative intent is unclear, it hardly matters with memorable dance theatre of this quality, performed in a venue that is so perfect for its purpose.


****1