Choreography by Akram Khan
Akram Khan Company
Sadler's Wells and touring
Review by Vera Liber
Blackness. The sound of running water. Lights up on a translucent backcloth, behind which a man is sending ripples across it with his every punch. The wind howls. Where are we? Where is he?
On this side of the filmy membrane stand six figures, draped in loose stone-coloured clothes (design by Kimie Nakano), immobile statues marooned in a desolate landscape. An imposing man with impressive dark beard and wild hair comes amongst them, and rearranges them. Is he the authority figure, the priest?
A clock ticks, and the figures dance, now joined by a seventh. Rhythmically they stamp their feet and beat their bodies, from which dust flies in feathery clouds against the matt lighting.
Kathak, martial art moves, a blend of Eastern and contemporary styles: the swaying collective scuttles like crabs from corner to corner, from light to darkness and back to light.
They crawl, they shuffle, they tumble, they fight, they make love, and they breath as one. Arms flagellate, raising dust and inspiration. A man manipulates a woman like a puppet master, and the music turns apocalyptic. Portentous maybe? Dramatic, beautiful and hypnotic - definitely.
Layers of sound, a deceptive softness underneath a heavy beat that gets more and more demanding. Arms reach to the heavens. Is this troubled humanity pleading for guidance?
A wary stance, then they whirl like dervishes. The light (design by Jesper Kongshaug) changes to a warm ochre glow. What is going on? We are allowed to fill in the narrative.
The music slows. Delicate plucked strings, mood music. Is this a scared tablet passed down from on high that the man is reading? A couple roll on the floor giving physical birth to the spiritual?
Supple swift shifts of action, pace, and mood. Is this about self-discovery? Love? Obviously, a journey. To the light? To enlightenment? To the other side?
Lights flash and flare, capturing the group in photographic poses. Thunder and lightening Sturm und Drang.
Circling, turning, crumpling, rolling, acrobatic, delicate, strong yet fragile. Again and again and again. Seventy minutes no interval - put this on a loop and there's no need for Valium or Mogadon. It has a snake charmer soporific effect.
Back to the flimsy membrane, now a man is on this side, and the rest are shadowy spectres on the other. Mirror images, faintly glimpsed, hands reaching across the divide.
Water streams down the membrane, dry ice creeps along the bottom. The plastic membrane collapses.
A mystery, a Tarkovskian enigma - he too looked to the past, to the scriptures, to iconography and water everywhere - a universal spiritual poem? A celebration of ten years on the road?
With a superb cast of dancers from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, a specially commissioned score from long-term collaborator Nitin Sawhney, it seems choreographer and artistic director Akram Khan has turned to the Sufi tradition and the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi for his inspiration: "Exploring man's earthly nature, his rituals and the consequences of human actions, Vertical Road becomes a meditation on the journey from gravity to grace." Now you know. In visual language that crosses all divisions.
Till 9th October, then touring.
Tour details: www.akramkhancompany.net