Music Center On Location brings U.S. premiere of Akram Khan’s “Until the Lions” to Culver City

By Christina Campodonico

Akram Khan brings women from the Mahabharata’s fringes to the center of “Until the Lions”
Photo by Jean Louis Fernandez

When the Music Center’s Michael Solomon first saw celebrated UK choreographer Akram Khan’s “Until the Lions” at the 2016 Holland Festival in Amsterdam, he knew he had to bring the dance piece to Los Angeles.

Described as a “lean, thrilling and beautiful” trio by The Observer’s Luke Jennings, the work is based on poet Karthika Nair’s book of poems of the same name and reimagines a segment from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata through the eyes of one of its female characters. It is also a technically challenging show, designed to be performed in the round.

Because of this unique staging, Solomon wasn’t sure that “Until the Lions” would fit, or have the same impact on the Music Center’s stages — among them the grand, but traditional Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — where dance is usually presented at the Music Center.

“There is a way to restage it for a more proscenium stage, but it’s not the same,” says Solomon, Vice President of Presentations and Education at the Music Center. “I wanted to honor Akram’s original intention.”

This desire to stay authentic to Khan’s original inspired the idea for Music Center On Location, a new initiative that takes Music Center programming off the institution’s 22-acre downtown L.A. campus to performance venues around Los Angeles County. The first set of Music Center On Location performances happened earlier this year, when the Music Center partnered with the Ford Theatres in Hollywood to present a series of music and dance performances during three nights in August.

“It was good to be able to take our work into new locations. It was good to learn how to bring our existing audiences along as well,” says Solomon.

For next week’s presentation of “Until the Lions” (Oct. 18 to 21), the Music Center will move onto a sound stage at Culver City’s historic Culver Studios, the same lot where legendary films “Gone with the Wind,” “A Star is Born” and “Rebecca” were filmed.

“The Culver Studios had a sound stage that is available the very week we needed it,” says Solomon, noting how the space offers a blank and flexible slate for restaging Khan’s work. “You have an empty shelf. … What it allows us to do is recreate the way in which the show was intended to be seen. We can create that environment from scratch.”

The Music Center will not only stage “Until the Lions” in the round, but also be able to offer a backdrop as epic as the story upon which the dance is based.

“I won’t give away some of the tricks of the design, but it’s a pretty fascinating scenic design and lighting design to recreate this world,” says Solomon of the Akram Khan Company’s production. “There’s a cinematic quality to it.”

Yet when Khan dances in “Until the Lions” next week — making a rare U.S. performance appearance before retiring from dancing full-length solo works next spring — it won’t be the first time that he’s worked on a Los Angeles sound stage.

As a teenager, he performed in director Peter Brook’s nine-hour magnum opus “The Mahabharata” at Hollywood’s Raleigh studios 30 years ago.

“I remember some celebrities coming to see the show,” recalls Khan, now 43. He also remembers his antics offstage vividly. He tells me about getting his first skateboard in LA, toying around with a remote control car backstage and getting caught with a castmate when he tried to shoplift batteries for it.

“The security guard was pretty okay about it. He said just don’t do it again and he gave me a long lecture. … So I have some really naughty memories of L.A.,” says Khan. “It was good I got caught because it kind of really woke me up.”

Years later, inspired by his newborn daughter while crafting “Until the Lions,” another epiphany came to him.

“When I looked into her eyes I was really thinking, ‘Well, how does she see the world; how will she see the world?’” remembers Khan.

That viewpoint informed his choreography, which explores contemporary themes of gender and sexual fluidity as it retells how the Mahabharata’s kidnapped Princess Amba transforms into a fierce male warrior to exact revenge upon her captor (danced by Khan).

“What Khan understands supremely well is the appeal of his mythological realm, and how to configure its grandeur and its ritualistic forms in ways that speak to us,” wrote Jennings in his 2016 review of the show.

“Today, the narcotic draw of golden-age nostalgia is evident in an ever-expanding market for computer-games, fantasy fiction, and epic-themed film and TV franchises like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Star Wars.’ … But by confining his material to metaphor and abstraction … Khan gives us theatre that satisfies our deep responsiveness to the mythic, while leaving no cloying aftertaste of sentimentality or kitsch.”

Even though Khan prefers to separate his art from the world at large, the current state of global affairs — climate change, Brexit, terrorism, mass shootings — has been on his mind lately. He values the capacity for art to create “sacred” space within a tumultuous world.

“At the heart of it, what art has the possibility to do is create a vacuum or a space where you can reflect and you can reflect in a very unique way, which politicians cannot do,” says Khan. “What art has the possibility to do is to allow you to see the world or yourself in a very open, vulnerable way.”

“You know it’s hard to find hope these days,” he continues. “It’s hard to define what that hope is, but the fact that we are moving, movement is hope. … Dancing is the greatest hope for me, anyway.”

 

“Until the Lions” makes its U.S. premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday and continues through Oct. 21 at The Culver Studios, 9336 Washington Blvd., Culver City. $20 to $105. Call (213) 972-0711 or visit musiccenter.org

 

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