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Until the Lions (Roundhouse)

The power of an angry woman is at the heart of Akram Khan's intense exploration of revenge and rebirth

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Gender fluidity is a hot topic at the moment, but the Danish Girls and Caitlyn Jenners we're hearing so much about now are left trailing far behind in the wake of Amba, the gender-shifting heroine of Until the Lions.

Amba is a King's daughter who flips between the sexes to become Shikhandi, who is then given a male form by a forest spirit. She needs the flexibility in order to wreak revenge on Bheeshma, the celibate warrior who kidnaps her and then leaves her high and dry by refusing to marry her, and putting her in a position where no one else will either.

A woman scorned Amba may be, but her tenacity in seeking out and destroying Bheeshma through rebirth demonstrates a single-minded and powerful nature, and it's the stories of women - so often unsung - that writer Karthika Nair developed when writing her poems based on the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata.

Those poems have been used by Akram Khan and his company to form an intriguing piece performed in the round - a first for Khan, though his 360-degree work for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 was some preparation.

He admits to feeling old in the present company, though his presence and fire as the strutting, aloof Bheeshma still make him a mesmerising performer in an unsympathetic role. Ching-Ying Chien is stunning as Amba, her beauty and fluidity backed by an extraordinary technique. She uses her hair like a fifth limb, and has the most flexible feet I've seen since Sylvie Guillem.

Androgynous Christine Joy Ritter circles the stage with a restless, hungry grace as a controlled and fearless Shikhandi, and together she and Amba unite to confront their foe in a fiery battlefield finale.

The live, percussion-led music that drives the choreography is composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, and singer David Azurza's voice has an unearthly beauty that is complemented by Sohini Alam's traditional songs.

Visual Designer Tim Yip's striking set is perfect for the round space - a huge, sliced tree trunk with its concentric rings suggesting the passing of years across more than one lifetime.

The piece begins rather ponderously and its narrative is sketchy, though given the convoluted complexities of the original, it's not surprising that the story arc is not made entirely clear through dance alone. But even if you know nothing of the Mahabharata, the basic premise of revenge shines through, and the pain of rejection felt by Amba in her duet with Bheeshma is one of the highlights of Khan's choreography.

His professional career began when he was cast, aged 13, in Peter Brook's staging of the Mahabharata, and he has clearly relished this opportunity to dance at least part of the story once again.

Akram Khan - Until the Lions runs at the Roundhouse until 24 January.

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