Until the Lions, Akram Khan Company: epic dance of humanity

This article was commissioned by The Upcoming, where it appeared for the first time.
Photos: Jean-Louis Fernandez
In a perfect circle of birth and return, Until the Lions is back for the end of its tour at the Roundhouse, where it first premiered in January 2016. Akram Khan’s work is a splendid piece of art, conjuring vivid images of love and rage in a vigorous dance of humanity.

The narrative comes from the book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, where poet Karthika Naïr envisions the stories of minor characters in the Mahabharata, one of the major epics of ancient India. Among them, there is princess Amba (Ching-Ying Chien), daughter of the King of Kashi, abducted on the day of her wedding by Bheeshma (Akram Khan), a warrior who has made a vow of celibacy and who takes the woman for his half-brother. But she is refused by this latest suitor as she is already in love with someone else, who, in turn, refuses her as well because won by another man. Amba is unmarriable and alone. A woman in search of justice, not heard, she now seeks revenge in another reincarnation.

Although sounding rather a convoluted plot, the beauty of this production lies in its smooth movements and dramatic energy. Mixing together kathak and contemporary dance, with influences from martial arts, Khan creates impressive sequences. The actions are evocative of undefeated spirits, in fervent attempts of love and in a vehement preparation for battle. There is intense fury but also extreme elegance in the perfect interpretation and coordination of the performers.

Photos: Jean-Louis Fernandez
Ching-Ying Chien is a sublime blend of grace and fierce resistance. She is power, despite her current outcast position in society. Her counterpart Joy Alpuerto Ritter is the androgynous-looking equivalent of Amba, gifted with a pinch of extra male savagery and more measured steps.

In the increasing tension of the story, one of the best sections is towards the end, when all three dancers carry out wide movements in parallel, perfectly intersecting one with the other.

Devised for a 360-degree stage, the production liberates both sound and movement, completely opening up this ancient world to the audience. The performance is immersive in its emotionally charged material and the multiple artistic elements involved. Halfway through, when the show seems to be all about the visual figures created by the dancers, the four musicians along the perimeter of the stage catch the attention with an incredible set of vocals and rousing percussions, terrifically mixed with electro sounds. The setting and the all-encompassing lights from above contribute to creating a suggestive atmosphere – somewhere in between a wood, a desert and a royal palace.

Until the Lions is an enrapturing and expertly crafted dance, stirring up primordial emotions and, as such, able to talk to contemporary generations as powerfully as it must have at the time of its composition – as only great epics can.

- Read the article on The Upcoming -

Dates: 11-17 January 2019
Venue: Roundhouse