Akram Khan has become one of the UK’s most influential artists. His recent appearances include a dance performance in the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony alongside Emeli Sandé, as well as ‘Kaash’ in 2002, a collaboration with British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor. Kahn continually seeks out collaboration.
Until the Lions is a dance response to the Mahabharata, a classical Sanskrit epic. Khan has used Karthika Naïr’s version of the epic as a springboard, choreographing a piece with two other dancers and live musicians.
All three dancers – Khan, Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter – are impressively in charge of their bodies. Chien plays Amba; Kahn plays Bheeshma, her abductor who becomes a potential lover and, finally, the man she seeks revenge against as Shikhandi, played by Ritter – a half-female, half-male reborn version of Amba. Themes of identity, transformation and self-denial are at the heart of this rich response to the complex emotional tides of this story.
Remaining in constant dialogue with one another, Khan, Chien and Ritter seamlessly perform together, in duets and individually, coming together again for moments of unison. One particularly beautiful sequence is Khan and Chien’s duet based around the motif of hands clutching faces – this is a motif that recurs throughout the piece, anchoring us to a particular struggle.
Khan says that “there has to be a meaning behind what the dancers are doing”, and he completely embodies this approach, dancing with a sense of having a need to dance. At times I was less aware of the drive behind the dance for Ritter as Shikhandi. Nonetheless, her technical ability to contort herself and portray both masculine and feminine movement is highly impressive.
The live musicians are positioned around the edges of the circular dance space. They respond to the dancers with music and sound, increasing the aliveness of the experience. Their music seems both to reveal the inner psychology of the dancer, and at other times to provide a rich juxtaposition. For example, while Chien is performing a slow, contemplative dance centre stage, the musicians group together for a joyful and upbeat chorus.
The space itself is a circular cross-section of a giant tree. Shafts of light spill from above, while the low rumble of a storm introduces this primeval space before the piece begins. The final transformation of the space is an intriguing trick, but not clearly integrated into the logic of the story. However, the image we are left with – of Khan’s body lying in the embers of a fire – is magnificent.
Until The Lions is playing at the Roundhouse until 24 January. For more information and tickets, see the Roundhouse website. Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez.