Akram Khan and Ching-Ying Chien in "Until the Lions" Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan and Ching-Ying Chien
in “Until the Lions”
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

The Roundhouse, London
January 12, 2015

Stuart Sweeney

Akram Khan has blazed a trail across the UK dance world for more than 15 years. I can remember his early solos, such as Fix, with dazzling spins ending with an instantaneous freeze, eloquent hands and feet, all combined with inventive choreography melding Kathak and contemporary dance. Rush, his first ensemble piece proved such a success that it was filmed as a school exam set work. A series of collaborations with other dance artists and companies were sometimes of the highest quality and, perhaps inevitably, sometimes less so. Nevertheless, looking back at his career to date, one can make the case that Khan has been our most successful 21st Century dance creator and that worldwide he is most sought after UK dance artist.

I was intrigued that Until the Lions was to be premièred at the Roundhouse, the huge engine turning shed converted to a cutting edge arts venue. My anticipation was justified as Khan mounted a stunning sound and visual experience fully utilising the possibilities of the circular space. The extraordinary designs by Tim Yip feature a wide, raised section of tree trunk with deep cracks and atmospheric lighting by Michael Hulls.

The title references an African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” with the intention that the woman’s side of the narrative should be given more prominence. The set makes an enthralling setting for the three dancers and four musicians to present an extract from the Mahabarata, a favourite of Khan’s and also the source of his first major stage appearance, aged 13, for Peter Brook’s production. Until the Lions, reimagined by Karthika Naïr, recounts the story of Amba a princess, abducted and then rejected by a warrior Bheeshma, who vows vengeance and achieves her goal after dying in flames and reincarnating as Shikhandi, a woman later given male form. This is a brief overview of the narrative and without the programme description few if any would follow the story and even having read the notes some of the intricacies of the plot slipped by me. But trust me, it doesn’t matter: Khan’s choreography, the fine performances of the dancers in the extraordinary set and the contrasted and brilliantly performed score by Vincenzo Lamagna combine to make a memorable evening of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Akram Khan, Christine Joy Ritter and Ching-Ying Chien in "Until the Lions" Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan, Christine Joy Ritter and Ching-Ying Chien
in “Until the Lions”
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

At the heart of Until the Lions is the role of Amba performed by Ching-Ying Chien, trained in Taiwan. She combines exquisite, gracious movement and heartrending expression as the abused heroine, moving to rapid angry steps as she seeks revenge and wild disturbed behaviour at her torments. Khan as Bheeshma defines his warrior role with staccato gestures and moves, only rarely giving way to slower duets with Amba, but failing to find any peace. Their duets feature stunning visions with their prone bodies stretched in opposite directions and then Chien hanging with crossed ankles from Khan’s frame. Christine Joy Ritter plays the androgynous role of Shikhandi, moving close to the floor with slow, menacing motion, adding another layer of sinuous movement vocabulary to the choreography.

At the climax of Amba / Shikhandi’s confrontation with Bheeshma, a long pole with a dark head at the end is driven into the warrior and the cracks in the stage lift and open up, lit from below and smoke rises as if welcoming him to Hell – an unforgettable scene. With Until the Lions, Khan has reinforced his position at the forefront of UK dance as dancer, choreographer and successful collaborator with other fine artists and designers. This remarkable production has a few performances in Continental Europe, but I hope it returns to the Roundhouse as I would welcome the chance of a second visit.