Until the Lions is derived from a tale in the Mahabharata about Amba and Shikhandi. Director Akram Khan has a long history with the Mahabhrata, having performed in Peter Brook’s version in 2005.
In this dance piece, Khan brings to life the story of Amba, who on her wedding day is abducted by Bheeshma as a prize for his brother. Amba undergoes years of extreme penance, which unbalances the universe. Finally she is able to extract her revenge, but must do so in the next life.
The performance takes place on a giant tree stump, the rings of the tree symbolizing eons of time. The earthy hues of the dancer’s clothing and the warm tonal lighting also give a visual feel of timelessness.
The musicians are in similar garbs and are used effectively as a solid background to the main action on stage as well as being an integral part of the performance. Deep resonant drumming is balanced with beautiful arias.
The story of Amba and her abduction is acted out in the round, which culminates in her death in a pyre. The tree trunk splits apart to great affect, with smoke and flame piercing through giant cracks in the wood.
The interpretation of Until the Lions strays from the original story in that the final confrontation is between Shikhandi, Amba’s reincarnation and Bheeshma. Shikhandi was born a woman but given male form by a forest spirit.
The performance was entrancing; the drum beats lulling one into a primal daze, while the dance action was intense, athletic and captivating. Khan has explored the issues of sexuality and gender with this piece, which is beyond the norms of South Asian background.
A truly impressive work, with an original music score by Vincenzo Lamagna, Tim Yip and Michael Hulls creating a beautifully lit design and Karthika Nair’s narrative concept, there was a standing ovation from many in the audience. A truly great start to the OzAsia Festival.
The reviewer attended the performance on 22nd September. Cover photo by Jean Louis Fernandez.