A thrilling, mes­meris­ing epic of bat­tling spir­its

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts - Mark Mon­a­han CHIEF DANCE CRITIC

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

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