By Nita Balani
TORONTO: Akram Khan Company’s interpretation of a small story from the Hindu epic poem the Mahabharata stands up as a monumental show on the modern dance/theatre stage.
Until the Lions is originally written by author Karthika Nair, who had the brilliance of mind to draw from the male-dominated, war-themed Mahabharata to focus on the lesser known female characters and make them shine strongly through her collection of stories.
Akram Khan has taken a leaf out of her book to interpret the story of warrior princess Amba ( award winning danseuse Ching-Ying Chien) and her kidnapping by Prince Bheeshma (Akram Khan) through the powerful art of dance. Bheeshma wants her to marry his brother but Amba says she loves someone else and thus Bheeshma releases her back to her family. However as per customs of her time she is rejected by the family and her suitor as she is considered ‘spoils of war” and tainted. She then goes back to Bheeshma and demands he does the right thing and marry her; Bheeshma refuses as he has taken a vow of celibacy which he cannot break. Amba then swears to get her revenge and goes into deep penance wherein Lord Shiva grants her wish of finding revenge in her next life as a warrior. To hasten her rebirth she self immolates to end her life. She then returns in her male form as Shikhandi (Joy Alpuerto Ritter) to fight Bheeshma on the battlefield. As he recognizes her as the reincarnation of Amba and a female, he lays down his weapon. He is then killed by Shikhandi and the female triumphs.
Akram Khan and his dance/theatre company skillfully merges Kathak with contemporary art forms with minimalistic costumes and props and just a three-member dance team into a full length dance work. Akram Khan’s strong performance of this epic esoteric dance drama has acclaimed audiences on stages across England as well as in Montreal, Canada at the Danse Danse festival.
The four musicians (Sohni Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler, and Joseph Ashwin) worked hard as they sang, played, drummed and chanted from the edge of the stage. The story is at the base level about a woman’s revenge but can be interpreted at many different levels. It is a modern take on the gender imbalance and freedoms denied to women and liberties taken by men. It displays strong female character and determination to regain peace and balance by extracting revenge amongst the largely male dominated society and culture.
The stage is a magnificent cross-section of a tree trunk and throughout the drama it cracks and heaves adding to the drama and heightening tensions on stage. The lighting and music and chanting of kathak beats rises and subsides as well according to the mood of the narration. The final scene of this intimate dance of two tortured souls leaves the audience spellbound as the stage heaves and swirling smoke and light effects glow from under the cracked earth’s crust in upheaval similar to a ruinous battlefield. It is amazing what one can achieve with seemingly few resources to convey something of epic proportions.
It definitely is a must see on every art, dance or drama lover’s agenda for summer. Particularly as it may well be one of the rare opportunities to see Akram Khan perform on stage as he is going to dedicate himself to choreography and other aspects of dance.