Until the Lions: From Award-Winning Choreographer and Dancer Akram Khan
By Sarah Crompton
The choreographer performed in Peter Brook’s legendary stage production of The Mahabharata as a child. As he prepared a new dance version of the Indian classical stories, he explained why he has put women center stage.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Guardian in 2016.
Akram Khan is one of Britain’s most successful and prolific choreographers; his work exudes a sculpted beauty and calm certainty. His dancing, combining the training of his youth in the Indian classical dance form of kathak with contemporary mores, has an almost transcendent complexity. And yet, he says: “I am becoming more and more afraid.” He smiles and points to his smoothly shaved head. “I am ageing here much quicker than in my body,” he explains. “I’m terrified that in a simple movement my body will give in and I won’t be able to do it. I can do it, and can do it really fast, but it’s psychological.” This sense of frailty accelerated when he tore his Achilles tendon in 2012. He was rehearsing Sacred Monsters, the piece he created for and performed with Sylvie Guillem, when he felt it snap; the resulting four cm. gap could have ended his career. But he fought back to full dancing strength, leaving doubts only in his own mind. “When I am stressed or excited, I still walk with a limp,” he says. He stands up to demonstrate, laughing at his own fallibility.
We are talking in a rehearsal room in Kensington, West London, where he is putting the finishing touches on a recent creation, Until the Lions, based on a story from the epic Hindu poem The Mahabharata. With designs by Tim Yip, lighting by Michael Hulls—both regular collaborators—and a score by Vincenzo Lamagna, it is an ambitious, striking work.
At an early run-through at the Leicester Curve in August, Khan created the structure of the piece; now he is working on the detail of the choreography, twisting and turning as he experiments with different shapes and steps. The work reveals a compelling sweep and ferocity as it tells the story of Amba, a princess abducted by the prince Bhishma on her wedding day. She seeks revenge on her captor, eventually killing herself and returning from death in the shape of a woman who becomes a male warrior in order to exact punishment.
Although choreographically Until the Lions is a complex synthesis of the traditional and the contemporary, drawing on all Khan has absorbed in his career, it also represents a return to his roots. From the age of 13 to 15, he spent two years performing in Peter Brook’s nine-hour version of The Mahabharata as it toured the world. The experience left its mark.
“If you feed a child McDonald’s every day, that child will start to look different. You feed them only vegetables, the child will feel and think differently. If you feed them a diet of The Mahabharata, it stays with you. Spending all that time with Peter Brook, and looking and listening and learning, also influenced me a lot. He showed me how to get rid of the fat, go to the essence of things. Simplicity is a sophistication and he is a genius at it.”
Yet Khan’s exploration of the story of Amba owes just as much to other influences, particularly that of the poet Karthika Naïr, whose book of poetry based on the female characters in the epic saga, also called Until the Lions, provided Khan’s principal inspiration. “She planted a seed in my head. In Brook’s version, the male characters are more dominant than the female characters. I realized that when I was doing that version, I was motherless because I was on tour for two years. I am very close to my mother but I was without her, so I became very close to the actresses, who were playing heavy roles—but they were not the heroes, they were not celebrated. It’s generally like that in myths, because the hunter is always going to tell the story. In battles, the victors write history, not the losers.”
The title of Naïr’s poems is taken from an African proverb that suggests a story is not complete “until the lions have their say.” The lions, in this case, are the women. Khan was also fascinated by the gender roles, the way a character is transformed from female to male. “As a contemporary dancer I am a bit more masculine and animalistic,” he says, “but when I do kathak I am shifting between femininity and masculinity because somehow the form itself gives you permission to be androgynous, to move between yin and yang.”
Although Until the Lions is by no means a conventional narrative—the words of the story are used as part of the soundscape, and the telling is impressionistic rather than literal—Khan has reached a point in his career at which it is the storytelling that interests him. “I started abstract—I wanted to create a vocabulary, a way of moving that incorporated Indian dance. That was my focus,” he explains. “Now, for me, mathematics is a means to an end. There has to be a connection to a human narrative, otherwise it’s just numbers. I’ve moved from being a scientist to being a theater-maker.”
Born in Wimbledon, in southwest London, he trained in kathak from the age of seven and became obsessed with being a better dancer than his equally talented sister. But he also loved dancing to Michael Jackson and trained as a contemporary dancer, forging a rich blend of styles and creating groundbreaking works such as Zero Degrees in collaborations and alone. Many commissions came his way, from creating and starring in Torobaka with the flamenco star Israel Galván to making pieces such as Vertical Road and Kaash for his own company and molding intricate narratives such as the autobiographical Desh, which explored his father’s origins in Bangladesh.
He has also taken on other high-profile projects such as devising a solo for Guillem’s farewell tour at Christmas and fashioning a haunting contribution to the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Another recent challenge was a full-scale version of Giselle for English National Ballet, which premiered last year.
Akram Khan pictured on the Stanford campus during a visit this summer. (Image credit: Toni Bird)
Now 43, Khan has two children under the age of five with his wife, Yuko Inoue. It is hard to imagine how he copes with all his commitments. “I don’t balance them very well,” he says, ruefully. He has learned to use what he describes as “fluff time”—the hours when he is touring but neither rehearsing nor performing—to develop ideas. “When I was traveling with Torobaka, I was not with my children, so I used that opportunity to work on Giselle.”
As he talks, you sense a longing for a time when choreographers had less on their plate. “Before, the artist just worried about the art. I miss that. Life has become fuller for everyone. Every five minutes you are fitting in things, otherwise you feel you are wasting your time.
“There was a period in Japanese art when they started to empty the canvas just as in Europe everyone was filling the canvas. We are filling the canvas, and that sense of space to reflect is missing. We are not choreographers any more, we’re politicians. That never used to be the case.”
While he acknowledges his fees are high in dance terms, that doesn’t mean he can afford to take time off. “Doing well as an artist in dance is not the same as doing well in pop or football or film,” he says. “Those are different money brackets because then you can take a year off because you have made a huge amount on one film. We don’t operate on those terms. There is a culture here that thinks money is bad, that it stops you from being an artist—but actually money buys me time.”
After 2018, he will stop dancing as a solo artist. “I will retire as a full-time performer. I may do little cameo roles because I think I would be sick if I didn’t have a reason to go to a studio each morning, emotionally and psychologically. But I would rather people say, ‘Why are you stopping?’ than ‘Why aren’t you?’”
Khan has reached a point in his career at which it is the storytelling that interests him.
He laughs. But the wistfulness in his tone vanishes when he returns to talking about Giselle—in an entirely new version, with the original Adolphe Adam music adapted by the contemporary composer Ben Frost. “It is a big project,” he says. “I’m using most of the dancers in the company and I’m really excited about that.
“I think the hugeness of it is that it’s really British. Britain owns Giselle, it’s been so special here, ever since Alicia Markova started performing the role in the 1930s. When you take something so sacred, you have to hold it carefully so as not to drop it but at the same time you have to put your voice in.”
He has felt that Until the Lions and Giselle are companion pieces—variations on similar themes. “I can’t separate them to a certain degree. They are interlocked. It’s all about the woman,” he says, before heading off to create another duet of revenge, love, death, and betrayal.
Upcoming Event: Fri & Sat, Oct 27 & 28
Akram Khan's Until the Lions will be performed at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium.