Until the Lions roars into London

Maggie Foyer

Akram Khan’s latest production and his first in the unconventional theatre space of Camden’s Roundhouse is inspired by the Mahabarata, the heroic tale of the battle of good against evil told in 100,000 verses. Until the Lions may not have the cast of thousands or the epic dimensions but the broad spectrum of multicultural talent assembled promises to create for the audience a journey into a thrilling world of sound and movement.

Speaking to two of the musicians, composer Vincenzo Lamagna and singer Sohini Alam their enthusiasm for the project was palpable. “Every day I come into this venue and it’s like ‘Wow!’ But I can’t tell you too much because that will spoil the surprise for the audience!” said Lamagna.

He comes with a wealth of experience in composing for dance and he talked about the “common purpose” in a project like this. “I had to give space for the dance to happen. There is something very beautiful about movement. The movement is musical and it needs to sing like a melody. I bear this in mind when I prepare the soundscape.”

Lamagna hadn’t worked with Kathak or Indian music before. “When I started my conversation with Akram he was aware of this. He wasn’t expecting from me the knowledge that he has and he was very helpful. For example, we are using some padhant, (the recitation of acoustic, semi-plosive syllables) that came from him but he was also very happy for me to change them and mix them in my music in a way that wasn’t traditional or pure. He was interested in how someone like me, without that background, would use the language. I’m not a purist, I always mix things. In finding my way of understanding the language it becomes a very interesting journey.”

Until the Lions in rehearsal>/I>Photo Jean Louis Fernandez
Until the Lions in rehearsal
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

Alam stressed the collaborative nature of the process. “I think the idea of music and dance as a unifying force runs through the entire piece. Vince composes the music but it terms of the sounds what kind of vocals, what kinds of percussion, it has been all four musicians with Akram, the creative team and the dancers.” She noted the international make-up of the team, “Akram is like me, British-Bangladeshi, Vince is Italian, Ching-ying Chien (簡晶瀅) is from Taiwan, Yaron (Engler) is from Israel. Each of us drew from our experiences and brought something of our cultural background to the table. I will be singing in many different languages – all the way from Tagalog to ancient French to gibberish! And my beloved Bangla has its place too. The Tagalog song came to us from one of the dancers, Joy (Christine Joy Ritte), who is of Philippine origin and the ancient French from David (Azurza) who specialises in choral singing.”

Lamagna recalled how the question of language had been discussed at length, “We didn’t want to use English. We tried using a little bit of all our languages and in the end, where we wanted to use the speaking voice in a singing way, and we actually made up the language.”

Despite the wealth of stories in the Mahabarata, Alam said that the musicians were not taking any of the actual characters on board. “I think the idea is that the scenes within the book are quite universal and anyone from anywhere should be able to relate to the feelings, moods and context.” Lamanga agreed, “We didn’t use the text a lot. Akram had a very clear idea, which I embrace, of using the text as a base but also using just the sound of the words. We were privileged to have the actress, Kathryn Hunter join us for a while. She acted out some of the words and they were coming alive with a strong sense of the sound: the word itself became a sound scape and I could use this in my music. I love this approach – for me it was fantastic.”

Sohini Alam is the voice on the sound track of Khan’s acclaimed DESH but in this production she, together with the musicians and the singer, will all be live on stage. “We are all in our way contributing to the visual as well as the soundscape,” she said. Lamagna added, “I had to put myself in a new scenario, we had to find a balance between being part of the show but without interrupting the dancers because we are working with some of the best movers in the world!”

Until the Lions is at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8EH until January 24.
Tickets: www.roundhouse.org.uk or 0300 6789 222