Until the Lions review – Akram Khan’s modern masterpiece

Akram Khan made Until the Lions to be performed in the magical, circular space of London’s Roundhouse some three years ago. It shone then, and after worldwide success in different arenas has returned home to cast its illuminating spell for a final time. Strikingly beautiful, poised somewhere between narrative and metaphor, it features only three dancers – Ching-Ying Chien, Joy Alpuerto Ritter and Khan himself – but is epic in conception, a myth transfigured for modern times.

Seeing it now, you realise how much it is a transitional work, carrying Khan from the intricate solos and duets that made his name to the larger-scale vision of works such as Giselle for English National Ballet, which emphasises his choreographic importance in a future where he plans to dance less. It looks forward and back, containing both echoes of Khan’s earliest experience as a performer for Peter Brook and the first stirrings of his collaboration with the composer Vincenzo Lamagna, who provides the resonant, evocative score.

Until the Lions takes its title and its inspiration from Karthika Naïr’s poetic reimagining of some tales from the Mahabharata, focusing on the women whose narratives peep around the epic’s corners. These are the lions, the hunted whose stories are lost because the hunters write the history. Here, they take the shape of Amba, a betrayed princess, abducted for obscure reasons by Bheeshma, who then will not marry her because he has taken a vow of celibacy. She swears revenge, undergoes suffering that unbalances the universe, then takes her own life in order to emerge as a warrior in male form, ready to kill the man who destroyed her life.

‘Transfixing’: Ching-Ying Chien and Akram Khan in

Until the Lions. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

It’s knotty stuff, and Khan’s achievement is to transform it into a series of powerful images. You might not understand every detail of the plot without reading the programme, but as he runs in circles with Ching-Ying’s prone body over his shoulder, you sense the outrage. Her despair, as she tries to make him marry her, is conveyed in a remarkable duet where they never quite embrace; his arms encircle her without touching. Finally, she locks her legs around his waist and they move like a double-jointed creature, joined by a bond that can be torn apart but never broken.

The most mysterious character is embodied by Ritter, both spirit and warrior, prowling around in steps that conjure animals and insects as well as the defiance of the fighter. Each dancer is quite distinctive; Ching-Ying modulates from little-girl skips and hops, her hands like opening flowers, to gnarled, twisted resistance, her eyes rolling, her body shuddering, as she wills change. Khan brings an upright ferocity, a whirring strength to Bheeshma, a man constrained and warped by his promise.

The intensity of these performances is underlined by every aspect of the piece. Tim Yip has turned the stage into the cut trunk of a tree that splits and rises as the world slips out of joint. The musicians and singers sit around the space, intervening in the action, providing an emphatic and glorious soundtrack. Michael Hulls’s lighting animates everything in searching shafts of ever-changing white light. The effect is transfixing, an hour that feels infinitely full of riches, an unforgettable roar.

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