I have long been a fan of Akram Khan, and his production DESH is one of the best performances of any dance company that I have ever seen. So I was thrilled to see that he had a new production out receiving its World Premiere in London. I eagerly bought tickets, and my anticipation was heightened by the reviews that I read after the opening night which raved about it, using words like “powerful”, “poignant” and “moving”.
The work is a partial adaptation of Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, a retelling in verse of the epic ancient Hindu tale, the Mahabharata. I was at a disadvantage compared with one of my companions for the evening, who was familiar with the Mahabharata from childhood. Before the show started he tried to explain the story of Amber, Bheeshma and Shikhandi and I tried to read up about it in the programme notes. I generally don’t worry about following the story of a contemporary dance performance, or try to find meaning in the piece, and am happy just to watch and enjoy the dance itself in abstract, but as I was aware that this was based on the Mahabharata I felt that it would help to understand a little of the back story.
The London run is based at the Roundhouse in Camden, a performance space that proved to be absolutely perfect for this production; so it came as no surprise to read in the programme that Until the Lions was especially created for the Roundhouse’s iconic Main Space. The only disadvantage of the Roundhouse is that the roof is supported by many pillars which block the view of many of the seats in the house. I was trying to buy 4 seats in a row but it was impossible to get 4 seats without at least one of them being shown as “partial view” due to the pillars, so had to buy them in a block of 4 across 2 rows. I wondered if this was the reason that there were quite a few empty seats – I had expected a new production by Akram Khan to be completely sold out but this was not the case.
Taking our seats in the Roundhouse I felt an enormous sense of anticipation and excitement. The stage area was made up of a giant slice of wood with cracks across it and smoke or steam pouring up from out of the cracks as though the earth underneath was on fire. Dramatic lighting also added to the effect, making the stage look like a giant gladiator arena.
With no curtain and the performance being in the round, a gradual hushing of the audience indicated that the performance was about to start, and I suddenly realised that one of the dancers was on the stage. Throughout the performance, the dancers and musicians used both the “stage” area and the area around it, breaking up the natural barrier of a more conventional theatre space where the action all takes place on the stage and is separated from the audience and making it feel more intimate which was surprising for such a large space.
And so to the performance itself. Despite the large space and dramatic setting leading me to think this would be a large-scale production with many performers, there are just two other dancers other than Akram Khan himself; Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter. The dancers are outnumbered by the musicians: Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler, and Vincenzo Lamagna. The four live musicians (there were others on a soundtrack) mostly used the area around the stage, and sang, played the guitar and drums and often used the stage itself as a giant drum. The music was extremely effective; sometimes consisting of haunting melodies sung by the musicians, at other times all four musicians banging out a rhythm with sticks on the stage that increased in volume and tempo to heighten the atmosphere and add to a sense of drama. At one point I thought one of the two women was singing a beautiful, haunting melody, but then realised it was one of the men who was a counter-tenor with a gorgeous voice.
The dancers were amazing; Ching-Ying Chien who played Amber was particularly striking – it seemed as if her muscles and tendons had been replaced by elastic bands, with some poses she struck like a contortionist, or like a doll whose limbs had been twisted at the joints so her legs were facing the wrong way. Akram Khan seemed to take a lesser role than the two female dancers, which for me was disappointing although understandable as he is now 41 years old. But although the dancing was incredible; dramatic, primitive, aggressive and animalistic, I didn’t find it particularly moving or beautiful. At times the dancers writhed around on stage, or performed very jerky movements almost as though they were having an epileptic fit. There was one move which was repeated throughout; with the dancer holding his/her hand up in a claw-like gesture in front of either their own face or another’s face. I’m sure this was supposed to be symbolic but it was a bit lost on me.
The dancers also used sticks as a prop – sometimes banging them on the stage, at another time a stick with a head on the top was paraded around, sometimes the sticks were stuck into the cracks in the stage and at other times they were used as weapons. The piece built up to a climax in which the cracks in the stage grew bigger, the stage moved upwards with dramatic lighting so that it looked as if there had been an earthquake with the earth heaving and moving and smoke pouring through the cracks, and the earth below a molten red in colour as if on fire.
As dramatic and impressive as this was, I had the feeling that if you took away the lighting and special effects, you wouldn’t be left with very much, and I had a bit of an “Emperor’s New Clothes” feeling. I was left feeling slightly disappointed; I wanted less posturing and more dancing. And with the whole show lasting only just over an hour, it also seemed rather expensive at £30 a ticket, only to be left wanting something of more substance.
Judging from the reviews – the critics have loved it – I may be the only person who felt this way! It is certainly a very clever and thought-provoking piece; it just didn’t float my boat. But do go and see it and judge for yourself – although the production has now finished at the Roundhouse, it is on at the Brighton Festival in May, and I’m sure will be repeated again at some time in the future.