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The Akram Khan Company in Khan's "Vertical Road." Photo copyright Laurent Ziegler and courtesy the Akram Khan Company.

Akram Khan's New 'Vertical Road' loses direction

Copyright 2010 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- There is generally a high degree of metaphysical contemplation in Akram Khan's work, but his new endeavor "Vertical Road" is completely focused on it. In fact "Vertical Road" is about nothing less than a quest for spirituality. Seen at Sadler's Wells on October 9, Khan's new piece is a reaction to the fast and furious technological age that we live in, with its horizontal current that unrelentingly propels us forward, a world in which there is barely enough time to breathe let alone meditate. Khan writes in the program book that he is attracted to the idea of a vertical path which, in contrast to the horizontal one, allows us to both slow down and connect to our spirituality.

The dance starts with the image of a man (Salah El Brogy, blurred, appearing behind an opaque plastic curtain, which hangs suspended upstage, separating his world from ours. He struggles, punching at the malleable partition as if trying to break through to the other side. When he finally emerges from behind the curtain, it's as an impressively statuesque Jesus-like figure who approaches the other dancers, bunched together in frozen poses. His presence touches them and gradually they come to life, unfolding limb by limb and shaking off the dust which covers them, like ancient statues being awakened. This re-birthing process speeds up in an eruption of Khan's characteristic movement: spins, spirals and leaps performed at terrifying velocity.

From this dramatic beginning, the remainder of the piece explores the multiple pathways followed by each member of the group of people, who each carve out their own destiny, a slice of civilisation in the making. Through complex interactions, solos, duets and unison, they reveal an instantly recognizable catalogue of human strengths and weaknesses, playing out charades of love, lust, hatred, suffering, empathy and enlightenment. A man and woman dance together as if joined at the hip, in a stilted yet supported duet, craving each other's presence in intimate claps and weight sharing. Another man is rejected by the group, forcing him to prowl around like a hungry wolf lunging at them periodically with a desperate aggression. The visual setting is sparse, highlighting the intensity of the movement: the performers wear the earth-colored shalwar kameez, making them look like some lost tribe in the dessert, while the stage is bare apart from seven small stone slates on which the spiritual leader periodically scribbles notes, as if deciding the fate of each person.

There are some blindingly powerful moments in the multi-layered choreography, and Nitin Sawhney's music composition has an omnipotent force which fuels the whole work. A multiracial cast of eight highly individualistic dancers from Egypt, Tunisia, Korea, Taiwan, Slovak Republic, Spain, Australia and Greece is a testament to Khan's keen eye for special and talented performers. The ending leaves us with more potent imagery: we see the group of people pass behind the curtain, trudging across the stage like travelling nomads, their shadows gliding across its surface as if they have transcended this world to arrive at another higher plain. Once again the Jesus figure appears, alone, restless on the other side of the border from the others, trying to get back to the world from which he came. Sudden darkness follows, then the sound of heavy rain. As a dim light comes up we see water cascading down the curtain. The apocalypse.

Inspite of the quality of the ingredients, overall "Vertical Road" fails to make the impact it should. Whatever Khan is trying to communicate is not as clearly delineated onstage as it is in his program notes. The abstract nature of the work, which is a departure form his usual vital narratives on globalisation and identity, and the lack of direction it takes creates a vagueness. While, of course, Khan encourages each one of us to come up with our own personal interpretations and deliberately leaves threads untied, he doesn't give us enough guidance through his stream of consciousness. Strangely it feels like he himself has lost his path in the immensity of the subject he's dealing with. It's disappointing, like an unfulfilled promise.

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