Witnessing the Human Condition: Akram Khan’s ‘Until the Lions’

Words by Jordan McHenry 

In early 2016, over 400 prominent citizens of the dance community penned a scathing open letter to choreographer Akram Khan responding to sexist remarks he made regarding the number of women choreographers in the field. In essence, he flippantly disregarded inequality in the dance community, claiming there shouldn’t be more women choreographers just “for the sake of it.” At the very least, this demonstrates a major slip of the tongue combined with a vast cultural blind-spot; but at its core, lies the very root of the systemic problem plaguing gender inequality in dance and other fields globally. The danger comes when comments made by public figures, like Khan, assimilate into the discourse without being scrutinized.

Fast forward to the Roundhouse theater in London, on January 17th, 2019. I attended the 7th sold-out show of Khan’s ‘Until the Lions,’ in which Khan is not only the choreographer, but also one of three dancers. And the only male onstage. Playing a pivotal character in his imaginatively dramatic re-telling of the Mahābhārata, Khan avoided cliche, and his master-narrative-style felt surprisingly new and invigorating. Thanks to a plethora of collaboratives on the project including lighting designer Michael Hulls, dramaturg Ruth Little, and author Kartrhika Nair (whose book ‘Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata’ was a leading inspiration), the show was incredibly moving, with details sculpted brilliantly in time and in space.  The performance matched the height of something akin to a firework show, always popping with surprise and intrigue. Pregnant pauses, poetic lighting and taiko drumming all contributed to an atmosphere that bubbled and brought me to the edge of my seat.

I would be reckless not to mention the piercingly-focused dancing of Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto Ritter. Their strongly percussive, yet delicate, bodies spoke profoundly. The range of effort qualities and speed they possessed was enthralling. Lastly, the Roundhouse, as the name suggests, is a 360-degree viewing experience and the stage was immaculately designed to resemble the largest severed tree-trunk I’ve ever seen. Ritter, with her idiosyncratic crawling, scaled across the rings of the trunk igniting strong connections to historical time and lineage, prescient themes of the Mahābhārata. I was emotionally moved. The show appealed to my core affinities and reminded me I’m a witness to the human condition.

However, I cannot allow myself to innocuously accept this performance in isolation from Khan’s previous statements. Although he apologized and recontextualized his comments, they still colored the lens of my experience. In the show, archetypal gender roles guided all of the major drama. The most obvious of these moments is when Khan violently pushes Chien off the edge of the stage with so much intention and purity, it made me ponder the depths of this man’s patriarchal conditioning.

The questions I am asking now are: how do we, as the audience-consumers, accept the art, but not the artist? How do we allow (and even enjoy) fictional depictions of gender violence, but stand up against the reality of misogyny?

For now I am employing a philosophy of moral relativism. If I were an absolutist, all fictional and factual examples of violence against women would be firmly unacceptable; but as a relativist, I believe in the power of the narrative. I believe that by showcasing this historical inequity and violence, something can be learned, gained, or revealed about humanity.

But this relativism does not change the way I feel about Khan’s attitude. There is an unacceptable gender disparity in the dance world. That is the truth. And I didn’t attend ‘Until the Lions’ just “for the sake of it.” I attended because Khan is a master storyteller, dancer, and entertainer; his success aided in large part by his privilege as a man in a male-dominated system. I can appreciate and respect the quality of his product, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept him. At the end of ‘Until the Lions,’ Khan’s fictional character Krishna dies an epic death. It’s well beyond time that the attitudes that inspired Khan’s comments mimic this compelling storyline and die as well.

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