Mid-afternoon, July 2nd 2016. Centre of the British Empire, where distances to and from London are measured. This day focused upon a pivotal moment in history, this place the epicentre, and two congregations in Trafalgar Square.
Depending on your perspective, you would have witnessed a rally of tens of thousands bemoaning our island’s post-EU Referendum continental drift, or you may have been one of the 600 of over 40,000 global participants of the Big Dance, choreographed by Akram Khan.
Khan and his company have been frontrunners in dance for decades, but captured the world’s attention in the opening cer
emony of the 2012 Olympic Games. A former student of De Montfort University, Khan’s legacy in Leicester runs deep, and he has returned to the city many times.
In its tenth year, Big Dance is a celebration of dance led by the Mayor of London in partnership with the Leicester based foundation for community dance, People Dancing.
“I feel it’s really crucial that we show our union together and connect together,” Khan explains. “It’s really hit all of us, this Brexit thing.”
The first time I saw Khan he was 13, in Peter Brook’s 1989 adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Khan played Ekalavya, a disenfranchised child archer who was denied access to learning by Drona, who favoured the privileged princes.
“I was hugely inspired by Peter Brook, and his version of the epic really shifted the whole way I look at theatre. How you tell a story and what you want to say, but more how you want to tell it – that really changed for me.”
Almost 30 years on and both Brook and Khan in their own ways revisit the epic; Brook earlier this year with Battlefield at the Young Vic, and Khan brings us Until the Lions at Curve, a retelling in Kathak and contemporary dance of a lingering yet lesser known character from the Mahabharata.
“Amba is this phenomenal character who thwarts society and in the end she looks bad. They portrayed her as a bad person, whereas actually she was fighting for her right. Really, she was fighting for justice and we are, always have been and continue to be in a very male controlled, dominated world.“
“I’ve always been somehow fascinated by the female characters and I found their characters more complex. Of course my favourite was Amba, and that’s who Until the Lions is based on.”
Khan explains that he knew he wanted to do something about gender, and the character of Amba presented an opportunity to explore this.
“Gender has always been on my mind, and especially today there’s been such an explosion, a celebration in pop culture when it comes to gender and gender-fluidity.”
In an aligning of the stars, Khan simultaneously received invitations from the 360° Network (a network of circular theatres around the world) and poet Karthika Nair, who asked him to consider making a piece on Amba. This opened up Khan’s consideration towards an innovative staging of the tale, perhaps invoking his experience and perceptions of Brook.
“I thought, how appropriate and what wonderful timing to create a piece from the Mahabharata in the round. Most epics were performed in the round originally and traditionally in ancient times.”
“Originally the piece was going to be a solo where I played Amba and Shikhandi, but I’d just made a solo a few years prior, and actually I feel a bit bored performing on my own. I brought two female dancers in, Ching-Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter who I knew would embody that character better and they’re two fabulous dancers, while I myself play Bheeshma.”
In discussing the practicalities of the development and process of Until the Lions, our conversation swiftly arrived at a crux: religion and sexuality.
“What you don’t understand becomes extremely frightening, particularly in a religious society,” Khan explains. “Gender is a huge issue. I grew up in London and it’s quite open here compared to, let’s say Bangladesh, where it’s quite challenging.”
We might picture the artist at the epicentre wielding and wrangling epic themes of human theatre, yet there is always the deeper human question: what is the motivation, and particularly what is the motivation to explore gender now?
“Since I’ve had a daughter, she’s three now, I’ve felt as though I want to observe things from a female perspective.”
“I grew up watching and reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and that of course changed my thinking a few years back. I remember thinking that everything a woman does and has grown up as is from the perspective of a man, they are conditioned in that way, trained in that way.”
The story of Amba is addressed as the story of all women, all daughters and their being oppressed by patriarchy. Amba is determined to overturn matters, determined to win.
“Amba is this phenomenal character who thwarts society and in the end she looks bad. They portrayed her as a bad person, whereas actually she was fighting for her right,” Khan says. “Really, she was fighting for justice and we are, always have been and continue to be in a very male controlled, dominated world.”
The Mahabharata is over ten times the combined length of the European epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Populated by a vast panoply of immortals and mortals, the Mahabharata is bracketed by the epicene Amba-cum-Shikandhi; born a female, then abducted, rejected and when abandoned finally vows to reincarnate as a man and avenge her disrupted life.
Occupying perhaps the two most crucial fulcra of the human condition – the polarities of female and male and the states of life and death – Amba-Shikhandi transgresses and transcends them both.
“To me what was important was that Amba and Shikhandi were one person – Shikhandi’s reasons for living are Amba’s reasons for dying. Shikhandi’s mission was to kill Bheeshma, and Amba’s mission was to die in order to be reborn and be able to kill Bheeshma. The essence of it is love, really.”
“Bheeshma could choose his time of death and so he was asked, on his deathbed of arrows, why he smiles when he touches a particular arrow. He answers that this is the arrow that Shikandi flicked and the one that flicked his heart the deepest.’”
“Then he’s asked how he can talk about Shikhandi or Amba affectionately, and he answers, ‘Well, how can you not love a person who’s been thinking about you over two lifetimes?’”
It is a beautiful observation, there’s a sense of love thine enemy – not in the simple conventional sense, but that they have thought about each other through lifetimes long enough to warrant mutual and high regard. A relationship of absence, yet ever present.
In many ways, this is not too dissimilar to our island, which often defines itself by how it is distinguished from the mainland, despite never really detaching from it.
And with that we return to Europe, London and a steward on Trafalgar Square who informs Akram of the large Brexit protest forming nearby. I suggest that Akram conducts an impromptu choreographing of this confluent gathering for a Bigger Dance.
Khan thinks that would be a good idea.
Until The Lions alights at Curve from 3rd to 5th November