The Mahabharata is an epic Sanskrit poem three times longer than the Bible. Its authors were proud of its encyclopedic scale: A preface boasts that “what is not found here cannot be found elsewhere.”
The poem includes the Bhagavad Gita, but also many lesser-known stories, two of which animate a pair of theatrical productions in Montreal this week. Theatre director Peter Brook and dancer-choreographer Akram Khan, who appeared as a teen performer in Brook’s nine-hour Mahabharata 30 years ago, have distilled different episodes from the epic into presentations lasting not much more than an hour.
Khan’s Until the Lions, which opened for Danse Danse on the weekend, takes off more directly from a retelling by contemporary poet Karthika Nair of a revenge story buried in the epic. Princess Amba is abducted at a suitors’ gathering by Prince Bheeshma, who wants to marry her to his brother. Amba says she loves someone else and Bheeshma releases her, but her chosen bridegroom rejects her as tainted by her capture. She demands Bheeshma marry her instead, but he refuses, saying he has taken a vow of celibacy. She then swears vengeance, practises austerity and immolates herself, returning in her next life as a warrior who kills Bheeshma.
It’s a very Kill Bill scenario, though in this presentation Amba’s story symbolizes much more than the desire to get even. It’s about gender imbalance, the liberties taken by men and the freedoms refused to women.
The show gained a cosmic frame from its physical setting, on what looked like a 30-foot tree trunk cross-section, in the centre of TOHU, the 1,200-seat round performance space in Montreal’s Cité des arts du cirque. Designer Tim Yip’s austere tree platform is round like the Earth, ringed with visible accretions of time, and liable to shift and crack open at key points in the narrative.
Amba’s story in the epic involves many characters, including sages and gods. Khan’s version has only three on-stage performers, two of which represent Amba as princess and warrior. Her sex-changing reincarnation, performed by Joy Alpuerto Ritter, slithered on the scene first, moving like a serpent or insect. Her shape-shifting presence at this early point implied the involvement of gods and the supernatural from before the story’s ostensible beginning.
Bheeshma (Khan) entered with Amba (Ching-Ying Chien) slung over his shoulder, racing around the tree’s perimeter like a thief on the run. But he was haughty in his vigorous danced exchanges with Amba, frequently wiping his hands and face to remind us of his vow to keep clear of women as sexual beings. The strict gender hierarchy of ancient South Asia was bluntly evident – a little too much so, perhaps, in a sequence in which Khan repeatedly pushed Chien down to the floor by her head.
Khan’s choreography was a rugged, whirling mixture of kathak and contemporary dance, strongly grounded in wide-legged stances that sometimes remained static as the upper body writhed and scrawled calligraphies in the air. Amba’s austerities came out in a number of hip-aching extensions and wide, sprawling postures.
The tale sometimes sank without trace into these movements, as the narrative thread became disappearingly thin. I couldn’t decide whether and when Khan also took on the roles of the story’s other disappointing men – Bheeshma’s brother, and the rejecting suitor – though a quasi-coital engagement with Chien didn’t look like anything Bheeshma would do.
Harsh as the relations between the characters became, culminating in a final clash on the battlefield, Khan’s telling was milder than the original. In the Mahabharata, Amba spends many years on her self-mortifying austerities, consulting widely as to who should receive the burden of her wrath. Chien’s self-immolation came relatively quickly, in a blaze of white light that was dramatically effective but somewhat misleading. One could have gotten the idea that Amba, like Giselle of the classic ballet, died on the spot of a broken heart.
The show as a whole, however, had a fierce concentration that was hard to resist. The three dancers were superb, and each defined a clear choreographic personality, if not several. Four musicians (Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Joseph Ashwin) sang, played and drummed from the edge of the playing space, and sometimes on it.
The geologic rupture of the stage toward the end of the piece, and the clamour of spears thrown on its surface, helped give this intimate piece the epic scale it needed.
At the end of the hour, we seemed to be staring at a place of volcanic ruin, defined by swirling smoke and a jagged glow from under the crust.
Brook’s Battlefield, coming to Place des Arts on Wednesday, looks similarly austere in photographs. It focuses on the desolation after the great warfare that looms over the entire epic, asking whether victory is ever more than defeat by another name. Where Khan relies only on music and physical story-telling, Brook’s piece is mainly words. It would perhaps have pleased the epic’s authors to know that their tales could be retold in so many different ways.
Akram Khan Company’s Until the Lions continues at Montreal’s TOHU through March 25. Peter Brook’s Battlefield plays the Cinquième salle at Place des Arts March 22 through 25.Report Typo/Error