Until the Lions: a Haunting Contemporary Performance of a Classic Tale
by Victoria Ellingham
TORONTO – Some performances leave one with emotions that just evaporate the next day. Although they may be brilliant and touch the audience, there may be just single moments that quickly disappear. This is not the case with An Akram Khan Company production, Until the Lions. From the very moment movement began on the round, tree stump set stage in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre during the Luminato Festival, the audience knew they were witnessing a once in a lifetime performance on the night of June 16th, 2017.
The performance is set around the tale of Amba after she is abducted by Beeshma on her wedding day. She is scorned and outcast by all the ones she loves, including the man to whom she is betrothed. She is even rejected by the man who stole her. Seeking revenge, Amba sets herself on fire to be reborn into the male form of Shikhandi. Seeing that Shikhandi is Amba’s reincarnation and was born a woman, Beeshma lays down his weapon and allows himself to be killed during their confrontation, dying on a bed of arrows.
Throughout the entire performance, there is the undeniable question of gender roles, especially through dancer Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s animal-like movements across the floor, as Shikhandi and gender-neutral Kurta displayed her defined and muscular arms. Dancer Ching-Ying Chien portrayed a very feminine Amba with her fluid and delicate motions, every inch of her body feeling and reciprocating the Kathak influenced choreography, a form of classical dance from northern India derived from the travelling poets who told stories through their dancing. Akram Khan, who danced Beeshma, demonstrated his strong ties and undeniable talent of Kathak dancing, with a real and deep connection to Chien.
The most thrilling part was the incorporation of the musicians (Sohini Alam, Joseph Ashwin, David Azurza and Yaron Engler) into the production as characters and almost dancers too. Rather than being in an orchestra pit or hidden away, they were an active and exciting part of the whole production, sometimes on the side of the stage and sometimes on. With Vincenzo Lamagna’s haunting music that seemed to mix electronic with classical Indian, mixed with Michael Hull’s sombre lighting design, the entire production was transported into a completely new world that seemed both familiar and distant.
The mixture of classical Indian dance of Kathak with contemporary dance, exorcist- like dance forms create a completely new form of dance most have yet to see, and with author Karthika Naïr’s retelling of this classic Hindu story, reminded the audience how important it is to hold onto old traditions while we embrace new ones, never forgetting our roots. This really was an incredibly inspiring and unique performance, and all who witnessed it, will not easily forget Until the Lions.