REVIEW: Akram Khan Company – ‘Until The Lions’. Brighton Festival commission at the Dome.

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Dancers: Akram Khan as Bheeshma, Ching-Ying Chen as Amba, Christine Joy Ritter as Shikhandi.

Music by Beautiful Noise – performed by Vincenzo Lamagna (the score composer), Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler, all voices & percussion, with classical guitar (Lamagna). Voiceover: Kathryn Hunter.

Narrative concept and text: Karthika Nair (‘Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata’). Choreography and Direction: Akram Khan. Visual design: Tim Yip. Lighting design: Michael Hulls. In one single act, 75min.

Leicester can’t put a foot wrong at the moment. And Brighton Festival’s faith in the place, in commissioning this work for 2016 to be made by Akram Khan at Curve Leicester, could hardly fail. Akram, a native of the Midlands city, has already put Leicester in the premiership of dance creation, so the footballers in conquering their English league game this year are merely catching up with he and their rugby counterparts. And Richard III last year was simply taking a few centuries longer to surface and get up to modern speed.

Arguably Britain’s most multi-racial city produced Akram, the boy of Pakistani blood whose consistent, dedicated hours of school truant were handsomely spent in a garage practising north Indian Kathkali dance and studying both male and female roles. So is it happy that Brighton, one of Britain’s most multi-cultural cities, should marry up and be the lorry delivering a new Akram Khan work which will go on world tour in November and of which it is already hard not to assume to be his latest masterpiece. Akram Khan’s new ‘garage dance’ outstrips the musical counterpart!

Kathkali alerts, informs and nourishes Western sensitivities through Akram’s sensational interpretation and fusion – the audience’s hearing and vision are so excited that involvement in the action seem to impel responses of touch and smell, too. I speak as a total newcomer to the Akram Khan dance experience. I encountered his ethos, personality, zest, vitality, insight and intensity when I heard him give to Michael Berkeley one of the many compelling interviews on the great BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Private Passions’.

This was my introduction to his work and his presence in our culture. This performance of ‘Until The Lions’ was my first experience of it. So his art is almost certainly hitting me harder and squarer between the eyes than it would someone already familiar. If you like dance and you missed ‘Until The Lions’, you have my astonishment and my sympathy.

The music, movement, choreography, lighting and visual design are frighteningly powerful. Lamagna’s musical collaboration with his musicians, with Akram and main dancer Christine Joy Ritter produces awesomely tight musical execution of something outwardly improvisational while simultaneously of a ritualistic exactness and penetrating in a similar manner to The Rite of Spring - and hardly less telling. Akram has a formidable company at his fingertips, whose chief personnel ought to become household names of dance.

Kathkali multicolour is not part of this dark drama. We see monochrome staging and costume – except only the symbolically red lining of the deadly-avenging Amba’s tunic. Long spears symbolising the arrows of warrior-archer Bheeshma, stand in a poised arsenal around the circular stage, which is a massively wide, flat tree stump hundreds of years old. One arrow has a reproduction of Bheeshma’s head impaled on it, and the spears are taken up by the three dancers at the climax in a terrifying dangerous and sustained sequence of pent-up movement towards Bheeshma’s inevitable despatch.

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