A thrilling, mesmerising epic of battling spirits
Dance Until the Lions Akram Khan Company, Roundhouse, London NW1
Akram Khan’s astonishing show Until the Lions was inspired by a book of poetry of the same name by Karthika Naïr, which itself drew on the ancient Sanskrit text the Mahabharata. The full African proverb that yielded the title reads: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Substitute “women” for “lions”, and “men” for hunter”, and you have a maxim that is perfectly in tune with the modern, post-weinstein climate – and the same emphatically goes for Khan’s pocket-sized epic of female empowerment. But this piece is no opportunistic reaction to or virtue-signalling alignment with the Metoo movement, for the simple reason that – somehow typically of this great artist – Until the Lions in fact predates it by almost two years.
Over the space of just 65 intervalfree minutes, this three-hander tells the story of Amba, a princess abducted by the wicked Bheeshma during a ceremony in which she is choosing which suitor to marry. Resolving to dedicate the rest of her life to revenging this wrong, she ultimately immolates herself but is reborn as Shikhandi, a woman soon given male form by a forest spirit.
In a scenario that vaguely calls to mind (of all things) the final showdown between Pacino and De Niro in Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat, Shikhandi ultimately faces Bheeshma on the battlefield. “Two tortured souls alone,” as the programme notes put it, “with no other adversaries or allies.” Rest assured, she wins.
That, you might gather, is a hefty amount of narrative to shoehorn into a short piece with just three players and no words. And, as at its 2016 premiere (also at the Roundhouse in north London), even two assiduous readings of the synopsis immediately beforehand weren’t enough to anchor me with confidence in the plot throughout.
Khan’s finest works (Desh, Xenos and so on) are seldom his most straightforward, and during Until the Lions, it’s hard at times not to long for a dash – OK, a lot – more narrative clarity from Khan and his dramaturge Ruth Little. But you do follow the broad outline of the story, besides which there’s so much sonic, visual and physical brilliance at play that it’s impossible to not find yourself mesmerised.
To live elemental music by Vincenzo Lamagna, it all unfolds in the round, on a set by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon designer Tim Yip. This resembles the cross-section of a huge, chopped-down tree, complete with countless concentric “rings”. Through various cracks rise subtle plumes of smoke, the whole construction lit with typically atmospheric flair by Michael Hulls. It’s as if the fraught, passing years of the story are etched into the ground and the ground itself is alive, waiting to consume the unworthy – which, in a stunningly and pungently staged climax, is what virtually appears to happen.
Throughout, the show flows from one imaginatively choreographed, brilliantly danced set-piece to the next. Khan’s Kathak-contemporary fusion has seldom looked more urgent, exciting or protean, ricocheting as it does here between menacing prowls, inhuman shudders and power-drilllike spins. In particular, towards the end, one physically bracing, almost indecently erotic duet emerges as if from nowhere.
Resuming their roles as Amba, Bheeshma and Shikhandi (and more besides), Khan, Ching-ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto Ritter pour superhuman quantities of energy and ability into the show, and it even feels a fraction tighter than it did in 2016. As the dancers shift between various characters and scenarios, they don’t let up the intensity for a second, fixing your gaze to the action as if with superglue.
The arts have yielded more easily graspable challenges to the patriarchy, but few as thrilling, original or stimulating. Small wonder then that the house was packed, with the audience on their feet at the close.
Superhuman: Joy Alpuerto Ritter, Akram Khan and Ching-ying Chien of Akram Khan Company performing Until the Lions at the Roundhouse