By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- Only a virtuoso dancer would make a work about spiritual transcendence in which the first 50 minutes of its 75-minute length are physically punishing. And Akram Khan’s Vertical Road, viewed Oct. 23 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, did finally culminate on a note that was, if not meditative, mystical. But getting there was rough going for his dancers.
Khan’s most recent ensemble work, dating from 2010 and offered as part of the third annual White Light Festival, features the former Egyptian street dancer Salah El Brogy as the leader, the mystique, the torturer. Yet it is he who is ultimately abandoned. He could very well be Khan, who, like most choreographers, lives a nomadic life where he charismatically entrains his dancers, enabling them to transmit his vision as something physically compelling and intellectually legible.
Like a shadowy giant, El Brogy first appears behind a sand-colored, somewhat transparent plastic scrim, which stretches across the stage. Like a poet having a difficult time articulating his thoughts, he writes his ideas on the scrim with increasing intensity. They materialize in front of the scrim in the form of eight dancers, who are uniformly dressed in desert garb. They look they have traveled from the four corners of the earth. Actually, they have. Khan’s dancers hail from Taiwan, Greece, Slovakia, Korea, Belgium, and Africa (via Britain).)
In a very “Beam me up, Scotty” moment, they stand stock still in a triangular formation. But instead of vaporizing into the atmosphere, they break their stillness by thrashing their arms in scooping unison motions. Hunched over and staring straight out they look like they are fighting their way through a desert storm – all the more so for the cloud of white dust that emerges from their clothes as their movements become violent.
El Brogy stands apart and looks intensely at them, much like a choreographer does. Then he moves downstage left to a small space with eight small, equally spaced black vertical slates. He prays over them. Eight dancers, eight slates. It’s just a matter of arranging them well. The analogy is all too clear.
The cruelty of Vertical Road comes through Khan’s duet choreography. El Brogy and Elias Lazaridis’ is especially violent. While El Brogy is built like a weight lifter with a mane of black hair that partially obscures his cobalt eyes, Lazaridis is tall, pale, and thin to the point of looking malnourished. When El Brogy comes at him, slashing his arms through space, Lazaridis hurdles backwards, spins out of control, and lands flat on his back. Without being touched, he has been pummeled. This pre-modern world, intimates Khan, is as full of magic as it is violence.
It’s a stretch to call the second duet romantic. But compared to the rest of the athletically performed work, which bears a resemblance to a form of Brazilian martial arts, it’s an absolute lullaby of motion. Andrej Petrovic and Pauline De Laet begin sparring in slow motion, but soon they are spooning. When Petrovic stands behind De Laet and encloses his fist around hers, he raises her arms to the ceiling and lifts her body off the floor. De Laet is literally pinned; she is also levitating. This kind of contradiction is at the heart of Khan’s work; transcendence is no easy feat (ask any Sufi dervish who twirls his body for hours in order to abandon his ego).
The most beautiful dancing comes from Yen-Ching Lin. In a strobe-lit Armageddon (Jesper Kongshaug designs the lighting) the dancers repeatedly fall down and cover their heads. Lin emerges from this madness whirling forward like a dervish that has achieved enlightenment. Her serpentine arms look like gyrating tendrils emanating upward from her delicate torso. She is the soothing breeze after the titanic storm.
Like many dance works, Vertical Road is too long, in this case by about ten minutes. Between the moment that the tribe abandons its leader (following Rudi Cole’s defiant dancing at El Brogy) and the moment the curtain falls, Khan’s dance drags. I wonder if El Brogy’s character feels remorse. He flails at the tribe standing behind the plastic scrim but fails to connect. When he falls to his knees, he appears to acknowledge his need for others. This is all too true of a choreographer, who is nothing without his dancers.
Structured as a quasi-narrative and set to Nitin Sawhney’s soundscore of whistling wind and throbbing drums, Vertical Road is a tricky ride. And the program notes are no help whatsoever. Khan is quoted as saying, “And I have always believed that it is in our slow exhalation where the sense of this deep spiritual energy resides.” That may be true for Khan, but not of the intense and breathless choreography he creates for his excellent dancers. There is also an excerpt in the notes from the mystique writer Rumi, who imagines transforming from the mineral to the human to a transcendent being that lacks corporeality. Being without a body is really tough if you want to do transcendent dance.
No matter. Khan’s 2010 work should not be weighed by what he puts in his program notes. The 37-year-old Londoner of Bangladeshi origin, whose company is now 12 years old, continues to be one of the lights of the contemporary dance scene. Khan’s choreography may confound at times, but it rarely disappoints.
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