A princess is reborn as a male warrior in a dance work inspired by The Mahabharata at the OzAsia Festival.

When Akram Khan was 13 years old, Peter Brook cast him in his legendary, nine-hour production of The Mahabharata in which he toured the world for 18 months.

Three decades on, and now regarded as one of Britain’s most important dancer/choreographers, Khan has returned to The Mahabarata for his latest work Until the Lions, created in 2016. In something of a coup, the Adelaide-based OzAsia Festival is bringing the one-hour dance work to Australia as part of its 2017 line-up.

Until the Lions, OzAsiaUntil the Lions. Photos © Jean Louis Fernandez  

Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, Khan has developed a unique, thrilling signature style that blends traditional Indian Kathak with contemporary dance. Over the years, he and his company have been regular visitors to Australia. He has danced here with Juliette Binoche in In-I and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Zero Degrees. His company has also toured with productions of Kaash, which explored astrophysics and Hindu creation; Ma, which spun around the relationship between human beings and the earth; and iTOMi (In the Mind of Igor) about  Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The Mahabharata is an epic Sanskrit poem, written over 2,000 years ago charting the rivalry between two great families. Until the Lions was inspired by Karthika Naïr’s poetic reimagining of it from a female perspective in her book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata.

Khan’s piece tells the story of one of the lesser known characters, Amba, a princess who is abducted on the day she is to choose her husband. She insists her captor Bheeshma marry her but he refuses as he has taken a vow of celibacy. Rendered unmarriageable by his actions, Amba vows revenge. Invoking the power of the gods, she kills herself and is reborn as the male warrior Shikhandi.

How much Khan’s experience in Brook’s The Mahabharata contributed to his interest in returning to one of the stories now, he isn’t sure.

Until the Lion, OzAsiaUntil the Lions 

“What I can say is Peter Brook had a huge influence on me. Not just The Mahabharata, but he had an impact on the way I see and the way I approach work. And so, in a sense I keep coming back to The Mahabharata, because it’s like the recipe of humankind really – of human relationships, the whole construct of family, and through family, love and war. For me, The Mahabharata is always relevant,” says Khan.

It was Naïr who asked if he was interested in creating a work about Amba. “It’s an intriguing story about gender, which also involves a gender shift between female and male, and I found that very fascinating, as well as as the fact that [she was] fighting for her rights and justice, and yet society saw her as the wrongdoer, so I wanted to really open that out,” he says.

Initially, Khan considered creating a solo that he would perform, but it wasn’t long since his solo DESH and he felt it was too soon to create another. Instead, he approached two performers he had worked with before: Taiwanese dancer Ching-Ying Chien to play Amba, and American-born Christine Joy Ritter to play her masculine embodiment, the warrior Shikhandi. Some critics have noted that the choreography for Ritter has an almost animalistic quality reminiscent of a serpent or spider.

OzAsia, Until the LionsUntil the Lions

“I can’t take credit for that,” says Khan. “Joy studied classical ballet but her speciality is hip hop and locking. She is quite famous in the battle scene in terms of hip hop and breakdance, and she also has Filipino [heritage] so I wanted to bring all of that into Shikhandi’s character and to draw upon those qualities.”

Khan played the anti-hero Bheeshma himself when the show premiered, but in Australia Indonesian dancer Rianto will step into the role. There are also four live musicians – two singers, a percussionist and a guitarist.

Performed on a set designed by Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), with  a floor that looks like the cross-section of a giant tree trunk, Until the Lions played in the round when it premiered at London’s Roundhouse Theatre. Khan later created a proscenium arch version, which is the one that will be seen in Adelaide.

“It’s a completely different experience; it doesn’t diminish anything. Of course, there is something quite sacred and ritualistic about being in the round, but there’s something more focused in the proscenium. You gain more of a full sense of the piece in the proscenium, whereas in the round the experience is more about being part of the piece, because the audience kind of hug the set,” says Khan.

Though he won’t be here in person, Khan will make an appearance of sorts: a model of his severed head on a bamboo pole, used in the original production, will still feature in Australia. “So, yes, I’ll be there.”

Until the Lions plays at the Adelaide Festival Centre as part of OzAsia, September 22 – 23.