Song of Surrender

Friday, 22 January 2016

Epic Retold- Akram Khan’s Until the Lions

By Shrinkhla Sahai

Recently, in response to a concern that the ratio of female choreographers in comparison to their male counterparts is presently dismal in the dance sector in the UK, dancer-choreographer Akram Khan is reported to have said that though the problem is big, the number should not be increased for the sake of it. He has received some flak for this. Though personally I don’t find this comment problematic or indicative of lack of gender sensitivity, I do find his consequent substantiating pointer at dance history interesting. He cites an earlier era where there were fewer male choreographers in the times of Martha Graham and even Pina Bausch. The question, then, is whether the sector has always been afflicted with gender imbalance, one way or the other. The exploration becomes more nuanced when one considers that there are certain notions of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ that strongly accompany the idea of dance itself. Secondly, the representation of gender, specially in traditional forms like Kathak for instance (in which Akram Khan is trained and experiments), are very deep-rooted.

In her most radical book, Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler argues that gender is socially constructed and performative. If we turn around this idea of ‘gender performativity’ to examine it from the other side- how do the performing arts represent gender? Dance lends itself powerfully to expose, the otherwise naturalised, social performance of gender.

Most of our epics are deeply gendered. And that is why there are numerous retellings of the same tale, to find silent voices and invisible perspectives that have the quality of reframing the story. Mahabharata is one such epic. Interestingly, one of the earliest landmark performances of Khan was in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. In his latest production of contemporary dance, he returns to the epic to reframe Amba’s story- the fiery princess who was abducted by Bhishma, and was reborn to take revenge. Taking author Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata as the foundation, the production hinges upon the question of the female voice.

While Khan the dancer plays the role of Bhishma, Khan the choreographer focuses on Amba’s world. A dramaturgical delight by Ruth Little, the production premiered at London’s Roundhouse Theatre in January 2016. This is a challenging performance space that offers in-the-round, 360-degree view of the stage. To create a choreography that is equally absorbing from vantage points on all sides is a task for a master and Khan conducts this with finesse.

The set design by Tim Yip recasts the cross-section of a tree-trunk as the stage with cracks, crevices and fissures that appear and fade away at strategic points in the narrative. Ching-Ying Chien plays the ebullient princess in the opening act, juxtaposed to the sharp and serious warrior Shikhandi played by Christine Joy Ritter. Both have a wild streak, yet Amba is confident, feminine and sensuous while Shikhandi is androgynous and animal-like. Khan and Little balance abstraction along with high fidelity to the narrative. Vincenzo Lamagna’s scoreis layered with recorded music, live drumming and open-throated singing by Sohini Alam and David Azurza. Michael Hulls’s lighting comes alive in the white and brown shades of the set and costumes.

Khan assigns simple and precise postures to each character. Amba transforms from a leaping joyous individual to a crawling, clasping caricature. She loses her honour after being abducted by Bhishma, and on discovering his unwavering vow of celibacy, she also loses her spine kinesthetically. Bhishma is unbending, unyielding and upright. Their duet is emotional, violent, tender and poignant. There is a complex dynamic between desire and duty, power and pain. Starting out as what seems like a soft contact-improvisation exercise, the piece accelerates into crude jerky movements with dramatic pauses. Khan excels in his use of rhythm here, interpreting Kathak movements and bol as non-verbal dialogue.

In the second half, Ritter takes over with her portrayal of Shikhandi. There is unnecessary repetition in the later part and the 60-minute production would have been riveting with some efficient editing. The climax depicting the killing of Bhishma by Shikhandi is stunning in terms of scenography and stagecraft. Given that Khan has already declared his retirement from performing by 2018, this production might be one of his last ones where he is on stage. 

Until the Lions reclaims the female voice in the epic. Although it does not radically explore fresh perspective, it shifts the lens.It transforms a narrative of pathological revenge into a compassionately compelling question- but then, what about her?

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