Brighton Festival 2016
World-renowned, London-based dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan, returns to the Brighton Festival with his new, full-length production, Until the Lions, which was co-commissioned by the Brighton Festival. Khan is joined by two of his company dancers and four musicians in this performance of a partial adaptation of poet Karthika Naïr’s original reworking of the epic Mahabharata.
Until the Lions is based on the story of Amba, a female character in the Mahabharata, who is abducted by a warrior, Beeshma. Beeshma is bound by an oath of celibacy and will not marry her, so she takes her revenge on him in the form of Shikhandi. Choreographing and dancing this production takes Akram Khan full circle, back to the beginning of his career when he was cast in Peter Brook’s staging of the Mahabharata at the age of 13.
Khan’s production was wild, animal-like, dark and intentionally difficult to hold. Scenes rolled fluidly into each other, propelled by the dancers’ relentless movements and the rise and fall of the soundtrack. The staging was lean: our attention was primarily directed to a circular cross-section of a tree trunk with deep cracks in it, which for the most part was flat, and later rose and split open to reveal deep, fiery fissures. This was like a fighting ring, where most of the action took place. It was flanked by four musicians, who observed and ‘spoke’ to the narrative, as well as the dancers who’d been expelled from the action or were about to climb back in. Everything was the colour of bleached bone and parched earth, except for the bright lining of Amba’s robes, with the areas of main action lit by vertical columns of light, and the sub-action barely highlighted in the shadows.
The dancers’ skill and physicality was powerful, breathtaking and otherworldly. Christine Joy Ritter played Shikandi with an insect-like, unhinged, shape-shifting fluidity. Ching-Ying Chien’s Amba was embued with a proud, graceful and stubborn strength. And Akram Khan portrayed Beeshma as an unbending man tormented by celibacy, loyalty and desire. Even in the one erotic encounter between Beeshma and Amba, he remained impervious and distanced. The tortured and rapturous tug of the relationships between the characters unfolded steadily through the sometimes manic, sometimes fluid, always seamless choreography. Once joined in dance, there was no uncoupling except through death.
The dance was underscored by Vincezo Lamagna with a mix of live music – aching vocals from Sohini Alam and David Azurra, relentless percussion, led by Yaron Engler, and, briefly, the soothing sound of a guitar – and pre-recorded chanting and strings. Its rich mix of influences gave a fluid sense of timelessness and “placelessness”. Sometimes, the musicians – particularly at the points where they became like a wedding band – reminded me of the drunken characters in a Shakespeare subplot; sometimes, they were as ominous as the chorus in a Greek tragedy.
If you haven’t seen Akram Khan dance yet, go and see him as soon as you can. After 30 years performing, he is planning to retire from dancing in 2018. Having said that, the sheer thrill of watching Ritter and Chien dance promises an exciting future for the Akram Khan Company, even after Khan retires.
There is just one thing that holds me back from giving this performance an outstanding rating: it was really hard to follow the narrative. It seems to have been Khan’s explicit intention to keep the audience in a place of constant wondering, as he played with ambiguity around the characters and storyline. Is that dancer male or female? Does it matter? Who are these people? How do they interrelate? Does it matter? Although this was, to some extent, intriguing, the effort needed to puzzle out the narrative detracted from the sheer brilliance of the choreography and dancers’ phenomenal skill. It was hard to relax, let the story go, and just experience it through the performers’ physicality, which is what watching this type of dance is all about. I have never witnessed so many people queuing to buy a programme after a performance. I suggest that, before future performances, the audience is either encouraged to buy a programme (ideally with a simplified storyline as well as the full story) or that they’re informed about the basic plot in another way, so that they can then let it go and immerse themselves fully in the dance.