Until the Lions, Director/Choreographer: Akram Khan, Dancers: (From left) Chien Ching-ying and Akram Khan.
Photo provided by New Vision Arts Festival.
Dancers: (From back) Chien Ching-ying, Akram Khan, and Christine Joy Ritter.
Photo provided by New Vision Arts Festival.
The word from critic friends on this year’s New Vision Arts Festival programs was generally negative, and there were mixed comments on Akram Khan’s Until the Lions from people who had seen or heard about the performance. So, inevitably, I had low expectations of this closing program of the Festival before I even entered the theatre. After seeing it, however, I would say that although this is certainly not Akram Khan at his best (DESH is always at the top of my all-time favorites), it is nonetheless a very powerful and intriguing production.
Some of the amazing artistic collaborators behind Khan’s great success DESH, were also involved in this latest production, and did a great job once again. Visual artist Tim Yip designed a performing platform for the main action that resembled a slice of a giant tree trunk whose segments were cracking apart. Lighting designer Michael Hulls created a circular ring of light around the trunk as passageway as well as impressive atmospheric lighting throughout the hour-long show.
Writer and poet Karthika Naïr and dramaturg Ruth Little again collaborated with Khan on the narrative. They chose the story of Amba from the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and retold it from different perspectives. Khan has been working with stories and elements in this Indian classic since his debut in professional performance in Peter Brook’s theatre as well as in a movie adaptation when he was just a teenager. In 2009, he also created Gnosis, which was developed from the story of another female character in the Mahabharata, the blindfolded Gandhari.
The story of Until the Lions simply put, tells of the abduction of Amba by Bheeshma during a ceremony. After her release she is rejected by her family as well as her betrothed and so burns herself to death. Then, with the help of a god, she is re-born as a male warrior, and eventually kills Bheeshma on the battlefield for revenge.
The title comes from an African proverb "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Every story can be told from different perspectives. This, in some way, explains Khan’s choices in structuring the piece. He does not simply tell the revenge story in a linear fashion, but jumps back and forth in a fragmented way, focusing on the love/hate/vengeance relationships between the three characters: the abducted princess Amba, the invincible Bheeshma, and the re-born warrior Shikhandi, presenting the tale from different perspectives.
The Chinese title, a single character “輪”, is much simpler but thought-provoking as well. It could be interpreted as Wheel, Reincarnation, or Round and not only echoes the circular staging of the production, but also hints at the theme of destiny in the Hindu world of incarnations.
Even though the piece originated from an Indian epic, Khan’s choreography is more contemporary than traditional, with only a few recognizable Kathak movements in the one-hour work. But these, rapid turns and distinctive hand gestures, were well blended with the fluent movements of the three performers.
Christine Joy Ritter gave a profound performance with her powerful portrayal of Amba’s counterpart, the strong revenger. But, perhaps the most eye-catching performance was from company dancer Chien Ching-ying in the role of Amba – she was simply extraordinary. This petite Taiwanese dancer showed both the fragile and brave sides of the princess with rich emotion and great technique. The duets between her and Khan reminded me of the fantastic collaboration between Sylvie Guillem and Khan in Sacred Monsters. In her solo of Amba’s desperation, her unusual movements of limbs and strong head swings were powerful and stunning. Chien’s performance of Amba brought back memories of her appearance in iTMOi (in the mind of igor) two years ago, also with the Akram Khan Company.
It is a pity in Hong Kong we could only see the production staged in a proscenium format – viewing it from a single side – and not, as it was premièred at the Roundhouse in London, staged in-the-round, Khan’s first attempt to choreograph a dance for a round stage.
Although the work may present audiences with some difficulties in understanding every detail if one isn’t familiar with the original tale, especially with its non-linear narrative, the visual elements and the great performance by the dancers in Until the Lions were remarkable. During the meet-the-artist session, Khan mentioned that he is working on probably his last full-length solo piece – we eagerly await its tour to Hong Kong.
William Chan is a Hong Kong based performing arts critic, theatre director, and a media producer. He completed a joint MA in International Performance Research at the University of Warwick (UK) and University of Arts in Belgrade (Serbia), and currently works as Project Manager at the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong).
Performance: New Vision Arts Festival: Until the Lions Date: 19 November 2016 Time: 8pm Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre