Akram Khan returns to The Roundhouse in London with Until the Lions, a theatrical piece inspired by an excerpt from the Mahabharata story. Created specifically for the London theater-in-the-round, the massive stage is transformed into an ancient tree trunk with many centuries’ worth of concentric rings that would have witnessed thousands of lives past and their reincarnations. Atmospheric rumbling wraps around the space, and shafts of light pierce through the mist – the prelude to an all-out war.

Dancers wield bamboo sticks
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

Indian Dance Fusion in Until the Lions

Estimates indicate that the Mahabharata epic originated in India, at least four centuries BCE; so it makes sense that London-based modern dance choreographer Akram Khan draws upon classical Indian dance to illustrate the tale.

The resulting Indian dance fusion combines a storm of precise Indian dance gestures along with additional expressive movements from contemporary dance. Throughout the dancers demonstrate sharply defined mudras, momentous turns and rhythmic foot stomps; but Khan expertly performs most of the very traditional choreography himself, whirring like a wraith and using his arms like blades.

If you enjoyed this show, you might also be interested in Akram Khan’s interpretation of Giselle on the English National Ballet.

Mahabharata Story characters on stage
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

A Dramatic Retelling from the Mahabharata Story

The oversimplified theme of this segment from the Mahabharata Story would be: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” After Bheeshma abducts Amba from what is meant to be her wedding ceremony, he refuses to marry her because of his vow of celibacy. (He had originally kidnapped her to be the bride of his half-brother.) This injustice fuels Amba’s unquenchable desire to extract revenge. Amba’s next incarnation, as warrior Shikhandi, meets Bheeshma during his day of reckoning.

Curiously, the Eastern European ballet The Fountain of Tears also involves
the kidnapping of a woman, whom is desired as a bride.

UK National Dance Awards nominee for Outstanding [Contemporary] Female Dancer, Joy Alpuerto Ritter reprises her role as Shikhandi. And perhaps she’s even more striking now than during the 2016 premiere, as we carry on from the incendiary Year of the Woman, highlighting strong female individuals.

Bheeshma and Amba duet
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

A seemingly restless wanderer, Shikhandi confidently stakes out the stage, fervently exploring the area in a unique type of ‘stop motion’ dance. In between deep squats, she flickers and flits – like still frames rapidly projected into a video or a heroine darting across the pages of a flipbook. There’s no ornamentation. She’s pensive, raw and powerful.

In comparison, we first meet Amba slung over the shoulders of Bheeshma, carried like a prize animal. When set down, she (Ching-Ying Chien) lightly skips and gracefully undulates, serenely settling her weight into one hip. But tight, full-body rocking motions embody her torment, as she navigates her uncertainty: can return to her old life or persist to marry Bheeshma?

Bheeshma and Amba dance while kneeling
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

A foreboding duet ensues, as Amba unsuccessfully pursues Bheeshma. However, the attraction is clear as they intimately carve space around each other and their limbs entangle. Bheeshma eventually cuts free; but during his defeat, allusions to this scene are replayed. If only Bheeshma had chosen differently…

For most of the show, Amba and Shikhandi tag-team on and off of the stage. They either dance atop the gargantuan tree trunk or move around the stage, partially obscured by shadows. Other beautiful images include Bheeshma and Shikhandi dancing symmetrical choreography back-to-back, the choreography unfolding in a yin yang pattern; and the light filtering through fissures in the stage like the magma from a volcano as the ground pushes up.   

Dancers face off in Akram Khan's Until The Lions
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

The one-act full-length show, Until the Lions, lasts approximately one hour. The dancers are divine, the staging gorgeous and segments of choreography, exquisite.  

Star Rating:

If you missed the 2019 London show run of Until the Lions, hopefully the dramatic show will return to the Roundhouse for a third time… It’s too good not to.

Until the Lions, hopefully the dramatic show will return to the Roundhouse for a third time… It’s too good not to.

Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary admission to provide an open and honest dance show review.

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