By Jocelyn Chng
(1160 words, six-minute read)
Until the Lions, a work that premiered in 2016 at the Roundhouse in London, is presented as one of the main (Centrestage) programmes at the 2018 Esplanade da:ns festival. The Akram Khan Company has toured to Singapore on several occasions in the past two decades, most recently with Torobaka, a collaboration with Flamenco dancer Israel Galván, at the 2015 edition of the da:ns festival.
A world-renowned contemporary dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan is known for his close collaborations across dance styles and cultures. In Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism, a rare resource devoted entirely to analysing Khan’s work, Royona Mitra proposes a “new interculturalism” exemplified by Khan’s work – different from the interculturalism of the 1990s, and distinct in terms of pushing boundaries in both political and aesthetic dimensions.
In terms of a “political” dimension, it is clear from the publicity material and programme booklet text that Until the Lions aims to reimagine a story from a well-known epic, the Mahabharata, from a marginalised perspective: that of a woman, in an epic that is otherwise overwhelmingly male-dominated. The work, and text used in the final performance, is itself based on writer Karthika Naïr’s 2015 book, Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. The particular story that the work focuses on is that of Amba, a princess who kills herself in her pursuit of vengeance against Bheeshma, the character who wrongs her, and is reincarnated as Shikhandi, a male character who eventually succeeds in killing Bheeshma.
Akram Khan’s “aesthetics” are also unmistakable in this production. The movements used to dramatise this story are as varied as the dramatic situations call for. One of the most memorable sections is a slow, almost romantic duet between Amba and Bheeshma where the characters mirror each other in a graceful attitude devant motif, and perform arm movements that recall an embrace about to happen but awkwardly cut short. Another impactful moment comes near the climax of the piece, where all three characters wield bamboo sticks, swinging them in unison in a circular motion, to a forceful 3/4 rhythm. This section stands out not only because of its visually arresting quality, but also because most of the music in the rest of the piece is in common time.
Movements also serve as characterisation – from Shikhandi’s animalism on all fours, to the more lilting grace of Amba, to Bheeshma’s sharp, angular movements and powerful turns. This partly reflects the diverse backgrounds of the three performers, characteristic of Khan’s collaborations – Joy Alpuerto Ritter (Shikhandi) has training in ballet, Philippine folk dance and hip hop; Ching-Ying Chien (Amba) is from Taiwan and has worked with several Taiwanese choreographers; Rianto (Bheeshma) has his background in classical Javanese dance and East Javanese folk dance.
Of the three, Chien’s performance is most compelling, embodying both extremes of vulnerability and strength within her character. At the moment where her stillness “unbalances the universe”, she is a picture of awe and power, alone in the middle of the stage. The role of Bheeshma was originally performed by Khan himself, which likely explains the forceful turns and foot-stamping movements reflective of Khan’s kathak training. Unfortunately, Rianto’s performance quality appears less precise and dynamic than the role of Bheeshma would call for.
The close collaboration with the musicians also reflects Khan’s characteristic attention to detail in his work. Besides being involved in the devising of the music, the musicians are fully visible on stage during the performance, moving around the perimeter of the set at times, and also participating in some of the key scenes, such as the climactic ending where the aforementioned bamboo sticks are flung by the musicians from all directions onto the circular set, releasing small sparks with each clash.
Rings of sharp-edged spots around the set conjure up an image of a cage or arena-like setting, which coheres with a story focused on an epic battle. However, while the set and lighting are arguably impeccable, staging Until the Lions in a proscenium configuration appears to have done an injustice to the performance, which was intended for an in-the-round configuration. Watching the performance in the massive Esplanade Theatre, even from the stalls, there is a sense of a gulf between the performers and musicians on stage versus the audience in the auditorium.
What is intriguing about the choice of subject matter for this particular work, which makes it different from, and perhaps more problematic than, most of Khan’s other work, is the strong narrative thread that underpins it. In an interview in the programme booklet, Khan partly addresses this issue, admitting the difficulty of dramatising a narrative entirely through movement. In the interview it is also mentioned that ultimately, narrative is secondary in a work like this, which can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level.
However, in this particular case, such an argument seems tenuous for several reasons. Not only was it deemed necessary to provide lengthy write-ups about the plot and context of the Mahabharata story in the programme, the movement on stage does closely dramatise the plot of the story, and I imagine would be quite difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the plot. More importantly, a key aspect of the thematic consideration of gender is as least partly dependent on the original Mahabharata text, in which the genderfluidity of Amba/Shikhandi is already apparent. For someone not familiar with the Mahabharata, without the benefit of the detailed write-ups in the programme, and through a purely aesthetic appreciation of the movement and choreography, it would be difficult to grasp the nuances of gender that the piece purports to be dealing with.
Furthermore, I am not convinced that the piece indeed deals with gender in a different or provocative way. The movements of Amba and Bheeshma, as described above, appear characteristically “feminine” and “masculine” for the most part. In duets, it is often Amba who is carried or flung to the ground by Bheeshma. I am not sure how such visual messaging questions or challenges the role of women (in the Mahabharata or more generally). It is also telling that, both in the original Mahabharata story and in this reimagining, it is Shikhandi who kills Bheeshma – a man can only be killed by another man, not a woman.
Until the Lions ticks the boxes that one would expect of such a high-profile international touring company in terms of production values and performance quality. However, due to the difficulties surrounding a subject matter overly-reliant on narrative, and the lack of clarity in how it addresses the issue of gender, the work unfortunately falls short of the high expectations set up by Khan’s existing oeuvre.
 A common position in ballet, with the dancer standing on one leg, and the working leg extended to the front, turned out at the hip, and slightly bent at the knee.
 Time signature that has two or four beats per bar.
Until The Lions by Akram Khan Company was performed at the Esplanade Theatre on 9 – 10 October as part of da:ns festival 2018 organised by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Guest Contributor Jocelyn Chng holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research. She is currently building her portfolio career as an educator and practitioner in dance and theatre, while pursuing an MA in Education (Dance Teaching). She is a founding member of the Song and Dance (SoDa) Players – a registered musical theatre society in Singapore, with whom she does choreography/movement training and production work. Jocelyn also writes for Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme. Her reviews can be found here.