We quickly power walked from downtown Culver City, where we had lost track of time in conversation, turned onto Washington Boulevard, and joined a group of at least twenty people (also power walking) from various parking locations. A man, who looked like he had left his real estate job about ten minutes ago, gently shouted into the night, “is this how we get to the dance performance?” To which about two guides and five audience members responded, “yes sir!” “We think so!” “God, I hope so.” — We had joined the parade to see Akram Kahn’s Until the Lions at Culver Studios.
Akram Kahn is an English dancer of Bangladeshi descent. At the age of seven, he began training in the classical South Asian dance form of Kathak. Over the years, he honed his craft by working with Sri Pratap Pawar and Peter Brook, as well as training at the Academy of Indian Dance (Akademi South Asian Dance), De Montfort University, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s X-Group project. In the 1990s, he began presenting solo performances, then launched Akram Khan Company in August 2000. Seventeen years later, the company remains “inspired by Akram Khan’s early training in the Indian classical dance form Kathak, and the hybrid language that organically emerged when Akram’s kathak training encountered contemporary dance in his teens, a vision began to form, fuelled by a desire to learn and create through collaboration with the very best people across all the disciplines in the arts.” (source: Akram Kahn Company Website)
We rushed through the ticket line, had our bags searched, entered a warehouse-like structure, then were directed to the “west” section to find our seats. We made our way past an enormous round stage that as our eyes adjusted, we realized was a cracked cross section of a tree trunk. We sat, and Khan’s retelling of an excerpt from the ancient Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata” began to unfold before us.
Opening with Amba exploring the stump, she discovered a skull and placed it on top of a long rigid pole. The circular set has similar poles both laying on the ground, standing upright around the edges, and collected on the floor next to the oversized tree stump. Our curiosity peaked as the performance swirled deeper into the story. We felt ourselves becoming engulfed in this mythical world, a true testament to Michael Hulls’ thoughtful lighting design. Countless light beams descended from the ceiling; the light dimmed and focused, guiding the story in many ways as much as the music and movement itself.
Kahn performed as Bheeshma, and while it is always interesting to see a choreographer within their own work – especially one as celebrated as he is, the two women constantly stole our focus. Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter fully transformed into their characters. Their specificity, athleticism, and performance quality fed the clear themes of gender identity, spirituality, and passion.
Amba is abducted on her wedding day, stripped of her honor, and rejected by her family. As she invokes the gods to seek revenge, the universe becomes unbalanced, and the tree trunk, undoubtedly a reference to the passing of time, cracks open. Light (again, thank you Michael Hulls!) seeps out from underneath with smoke swirling around the – at this point – near creature-like choreography. It became clear we had left the human world, and Kahn had guided us into a universe that challenged gender identity, revenge, and the afterlife. The musicians moved around the set in an aggressive call-and-response pattern, both with drum beats and vocal arrangements. As the piece concluded, each production element wove together in a captivating climax and closing of the story.
While Until the Lions was a multi-sensory experience that I would highly recommend to both dance/theatre lovers and not alike, I struggle with separating the work, which intends to demonstrate the endurance of the female spirit, with Kahn’s recent comment “Don’t have more female choreographers for the sake of it.” Because, like Luke Jennings, the Observer’s dance critic said, we do need more female choreographers for the sake of it.
But I suppose that opens another question — how do we make sense of the relationship choreographers’ work and their personal bias or beliefs?