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Akram Khan : Vertical Road

February 4, 2012

Photograph by Laurent Ziegler

Reviewed February 3, 2012

NAC Theatre, Ottawa

As if a cell phone would start ringing during the quietest, most intimate moment of Akram Khan’s new, contemplative ensemble work, Vertical Road. A contemporary statement dance choreographed in 2010 by the Anglo-Bangladeshi classic kathak-trained Khan, the 75-minute work draws inspiration from the Sufi tradition and 13th century poet philosopher Rumi.

It’s an ambition narrative of time, of movement through time, a search for a “vertical” connection between the earthly and the spiritual, a path perpendicular to the horizontal current, where time moves at high velocity. It’s a journey from gravity to grace.

Vertical Road opens on a sole dancer behind a large sheet of plastic that covers the entire back wall of the stage. Accompanied by a faint sound of water, the dancer interacts with the scrim, he’s caught in it, he’s trying to see his way out of it, and he sets up ripples through it so that the drapery becomes part of the dance. He writes his script of movement upon it.

The sound of trickling water gradually increases to a deafening throb until all goes black, leaving a deep emptiness on the stage. A strong breath of wind follows. A slow, meditative exhalation.

There’s a sense of passage of time, of emerging from dust. In fact, the eight dancers, draped in stone-coloured, loose-fitting costumes designed by Kimie Nakano, fling a fine covering of powder from their clothing as they become animate, filling the stage and the air with a transparent cloud of dust. Statues that come to life.

The vigorous, disciplined dancers, who come from across Asia, Europe and the Middle East, move in an impressive and harmonious unity, animated by composer Nitin Sawhney’s pounding, throbbing, pulsating specially commissioned score.

The lighting, designed by Jesper Kongshaug, is quiet or stark, emphasizing a sense that the dancers are made of chalk.

More than a journey, as suggested by the title Vertical Road, the dancing is a story. For the most part, the dancers do not interact with each other, but move as individual pieces of a well-oiled machine. Their first interactions, explorations of humanity and connection with “the other” are coarse and violent. They are the machine of humanity. Sometimes they are pinned to the earth and can only crawl furiously across the floor.

As a couple roll around the stage in intimate embrace, a slow-motion duet suggesting a discovery of love, a kind of hush falls over the performance. Then the couple are separated. And if love can thus be taken away so abruptly, then are we left bereft, the empty sound of a wind, or inhalation of breath.

And that’s when the cell phone starts ringing. Its owner either ignoring it or having trouble locating it, it rings and rings and rings, cutting starkly into the vulnerable world we have entered, the world Khan takes us to.

As the piece, nonetheless unperturbed by the stark intrusion of today’s technological dependency, comes to an end, the dancers twirl in ever-turning Dervish circles, their arms outstretched, open to infinity. The play of light and shadow “colour” the narrative as it climaxes. A golden glow appears from behind the scrim, like some heavenly light, a muffled candlelight glow, through which the shadowed figures of all but one of the dancers pass. They leave us with a final image of outstretched arms, hands spread out against the wall from behind it, finger shapes sharply defined on the scrim, bodies blurred beyond.

The lone eighth dancer performs a dying swan finale in a beam of light centre stage, the sound of water returns, he looks upward, beats his chest and then walks toward the plastic backdrop, now bathed in light, touches it and it crumples to the floor.

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From → Contemporary

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