One of the most respected figures in the dance world, Akram Khan returns to Brighton Festival joined by two of his company dancers alongside four musicians providing haunting vocals and soundscape for his new, full-length production Until the Lions. Review by Colin Hambrook.
Akram Khan’s genius in fusing the Indian classical dance form Kathak, contact dance and counter balance work is realised without any doubt in his latest production Until the Lions. The dynamic powerful and extraordinary use of bodies, movement and live music in this piece leaves the audience with a brutal, uncompromising sense of an eternal battle played out in relationship: the mingling of love and power is forever destined to come to a tricky end.
The programme sets down an African proverb at the heart of Khan’s vision, which is also the title of Karthika Naïr’s poetry collection that the artist has drawn from: “Until the lions have their own historians the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.
The emphasis within the telling of the story from the epic Sanskrit poem The Mahabharata has always been on princess Amba’s (Ching-Ying Chien) role as victim. Khan has reinvisaged the warrior princesses’ reincarnated self Shikhandi (Christine Joy Ritter) as a ferocious, gender-switching, Bosch-like creature. Only part-human s/he introduces herself near the beginning of the piece running on all fours, fast and deadly, with an ease that defies imagination.
Khan seeks to redress the balance of our understanding of the story. The victor is Amba’s reincarnated self. The warrior Bheeshma played with angular precision and violence by Khan is speared coldly and savagely by Shikhandi and the world is rent in two.
The piece presents a beautiful but brutal dance between female and male universal principles illustrated as an inevitable, eternal cycle. Khan appeals to the mythic within us to encounter the balance of gender within ourselves, set to an – at times – unnerving score by Beautiful Noise; sound that draws from the guttural beating heart and the life and death language of the soul.
The combination of the piece’s use of smoke, heavy chiaroscuro lighting and musicality sets a backbone to the performances intense level of risk. The persistent beat of drum and heart culminates in a scene where elemental forces throw down heaps of huge spear-like sticks on the defeated body of Bheeshma with a tremendous theatrical cacophony.
However, aside from the eternal battle between Amba and Bheeshma it is difficult to get a sense of the subtleties of the narrative within the performance as a piece of theatre. This becomes even more difficult in such a large space as Brighton Dome where unless you are sat right near the front, you become detached from what is essentially an immersive piece.
There is also an assumption that you should know the story beforehand – and perhaps you should, as a mark of respect to artists of the stature of Akram Khan. But just as the Beatles always ensured they put their very best songs on the A and the B sides of their singles, I can’t help feeling that performance needs to consider accessibility as a way of ensuring value for all who come into the theatre space.
What would have worked in terms of access would have been clear pre-show notes that give you a basic structure of the story-line. An opportunity for a touch-tour beforehand would have given an audience a sense of the universe they were being plunged into as symbolised by the huge sliced-through tree, which sets the stage for the battle. From row H back it is impossible to see that the raised circular platform is a tree and so an important part of the symbolism of the piece is lost – not just for a visually impaired audience, but for everyone.
Audiences need to have the opportunity to read programme notes comfortably and whilst appreciating the artistic intention behind setting up a low-level lit environment to set the atmosphere, this does not present a conducive situation to be able to digest printed material before the performance begins, especially when it is in grey, ten point text on white. Being able to digest programme notes before-hand, produced online would give a broader audience than visually-impaired people the opportunity to gain an understanding of the story and to appreciate the narrative with more rigour.
As audience you can appreciate Until the Lions simply for its technical mastery, beauty and passion, but to introduce the characters with more clarity and to signpost the narrative would give the show greater depth and meaning. Some clues were given in half-sung, voiced parts that talk of the cyclical eternal nature of the battle: “at the end we arrive at the beginning.” These were junctures at which I began to engage more, having got bored during long sequences of not being able to deduce the storyline.
This is a show that would be near impossible to audio-describe because of its intense poetic layering of movement, sound and light and yet more poetic elements from the narrative in describing the physicality of the piece woven into the soundscape, either sung or spoken could have made the story more understandable.
Ultimately Khan conveys the importance of the central message of princess Amba’s story from within The Mahabharata to him personally, as a performer and a storyteller. Until the Lions packs a punch overall but like much contemporary dance misses out on giving its audience some of the finer details from within the narrative it seeks to convey.