In his newest work "Until the Lions," award-winning choreographer Akram Khan changes the narrative of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata by choosing to focus on a female protagonist while exploring the confines and assumptions of gender in our society, the journeys we experience through the passages of time and the strength of human devotion.
"As in many myths, the female characters are often the unsung heroes," said Khan, whose production is a partial adaptation of Karthika Naïr's book "Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata," a collection of poems about the Mahabharata's female characters. (The book's title is taken from the Ugbo proverb: "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter").
With only three dancers and four musicians, Khan uses classical Indian kathak and contemporary dance to tell the tale of Amba, a princess abducted on her wedding day and stripped of her honor, who invokes the gods to seek revenge.
Khan said he found Amba's character striking in her complete commitment to revenge. She was a woman, who despite extreme adversity, followed the beat of her own drum.
After reading Nair's poem describing Amba's journey, Khan said, "(I) could immediately relate to it choreographically, visually, physically."
Khan's dance production focuses on one piece of one book from the 200,000-verse epic — which is 10X the length of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Written in the eighth or ninth century BCE, the Mahabharata's 18 books, follow the Kurukshetra War and the stories of Kaurava and Pandava princes.
"The show gives space for the female voice," said Rianto, a dancer from Akram Kahn Company who uses only a first name and plays the warrior Bheeshma in this production."This interpretation of the Mahabharata asks the masculine to experience much more than just that of a hero that dominates above all others. Here, he must melt when he sees the tears of women."
Khan, who performed in author Peter Brook's Shakespeare Company production of Mahabharata as a teen, has been familiar with the Mahabharata since early childhood.
He initially grappled with how to tell the story of Amba to those who didn't know the Mahabharata.
"If you tell the story of Amba," Khan said, "you have to understand the whole Mahabharata ... and how the hell are we going to say the whole story when there's three of us, three dancers and four musicians?"
Khan said instead of trying to tell the whole Mahabharata in his production, he chose to look at the story through energy and metaphors. He relates his work to poetry.
Khan recognized that this medium of expression can be "kind of dangerous ... for mass public." He and his team cautiously recognized the thin line that exists between abstraction and accessibility and ultimately decided that knowing the whole story was not important.
"What's important," Khan explained, "is this story has to not be specific to a particular culture, it has to become universal."
Joy Alpuerto Ritter, who plays the gender-bending warrior Shikhandi, said in some ways, the story already has become universal. She said sometimes what the audience takes away is entirely different from the story of the Mahabharata, "but they see the energy, the bad and the good."
The team has been crafting this piece since its world premiere in London in January 2016, but Ritter said it is ever-changing and still quite exciting.
"In the beginning, it wasn't clear which role we'd take," Ritter said. "We were three dancers, and we said, 'Okay, who's going to play who?' While we were creating and exploring, we sort of found our characters."
Rianto noted that in his role of Bheeshma, he draws on his own father's character and tries to apply it to his own body.
Ritter said her inspirations stem from different elements of different styles of dance pulled from her repertoire of everything from formal ballet to break dance.
"I think the more vocabulary you have, the more choices you have for how you want to move or express the character," said Ritter. "I like to surprise myself ... to try new things or challenge myself as long as it stays in the role, in the character and in the energy. I try to fusion all knowledge and all my body into my own vocabulary."
Khan said all three dancers are creating the material audiences see on stage.
"I put the context very clearly, but out of that, they improvise," he said.
But improvision doesn't mean a lack of cohesion.
Rianto said there is a great sense of "togetherness" on stage.
"Each individual dancer and musician has a very specific character, what this creates together is (a) new world on stage," Rianto said."For me, the transforming process is that each section, each character must be able to create the experience of inner turmoil. The story becomes a medium between motion and emotion."
What: "Until the Lions."
Where:Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford.
When: Friday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 28. at 7:30 p.m.
Info: For tickets, purchase online at live.stanford.edu.