Director and Choreographer: Akram Khan
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Akram Khan’s farewell continues and this week sees his last performances in his show Until The Lions, first seen at The Roundhouse in 2016. If this really is to be his final performance as a dancer then it’s a fitting and an emotional goodbye.
In May of 2018, Khan danced his last solo show in Xenos, which examined the forgotten stories of Indian soldiers in World War One, and played as part of the 14-18 NOW festival. While a perfect showcase for Khan’s skills, it was also cold and strangely static. Until The Lions, however, is full of movement and noise. Played in the round, it also feels incredibly intimate.
The show gets its name from an Ugbo proverb: ‘Until the lions have their own histories, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ It’s an apt quote as the piece is about how a woman wreaks revenge on the man who ruined her. Based on minor characters from the Mahabharata, and a book by writer Karthika NaÏr, Until The Lions is the story of Amba, who is kidnapped at a ceremony where she was about to select her husband. However, her captor, Bheeshma, doesn’t want Amba for himself as he has taken a vow of eternal celibacy. Instead, he intends to give her to his half-brother. She manages to get home but her eligibility as a wife has been compromised as she has been won in battle. Amba with the help of her future self, Shikhandi, seeks revenge on Bheeshma.
A complicated story, and it’s often impossible to translate the dance on stage to the events of Amba’s narrative. But the dance and live music is truly spectacular and if you are not carried away by the story then you are carried away by the emotion on stage. Khan as Bheeshma, Ching-Ying Chien as Amba and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Shikhandi fill the circular stage with staccato movements, hitting the beats, or the half beats or swirling on top of them, in glorious unison.
Although the show lasts only a hour, the fitness levels of the three dancers is breathtaking especially Chien who must have abs of steel as she hangs horizontally to Khan in a dance where she tries to break his vow of chastity. To do this show once would be beyond many dancers, but staggeringly Until The Lions plays twice a night.
Just as important as the dance is the music performed by four musicians who, at times, also become part of the story. Yaron Engler’s drumming is another form of choreography here and, like the dancers, he never misses a beat. Joseph Ashwin adds the sound of the guitar while Sohini Alam and David Azurza add their heart-breaking and mournful voices. Alam’s song of grief is particularly moving. The four of them circle Tim Yip’s stage, a tree-trunk cut in traverse showing its rings and cracks, as they watch the tense interactions of the dancers.
Akram Khan is probably Britain’s most famous and accomplished dancer. We can only hope that this isn’t his last show and, if it is, that in the future he will be persuaded to occasionally come out of retirement.
Runs until 17 January 2019 | Image: Contributed