White Light Festival

Akram Khan's 'Vertical Road'

by Sachyn Mital

26 November 2012

The White Light Festival performance of 'Vertical Road' may have allowed the dancers to transcend the earthly plane, but its audience might be stuck wondering how it happened.
Photo credits: Nan Melville, courtesy of Lincoln Center. 

Vertical Road

23 Oct 2012: Lincoln Center — New York

“This work includes a strobe light, smoke, and loud sound” read the disclaimer on the front of the Playbill for the performance of ‘Vertical Road’ by the Akram Khan Dance Company. But the powerful effects in this performance flowed from the dancers fluid motions, as choreographed by Akram Khan, garbed in earthy-toned, loose attire. His production was supported by music from Nitin Sawhney, the UK composer whose most recent work includes a concept album with William Hurt entitled Last Days of Meaning and the score for the movie Midnight’s Children, though neither were present for the US performance.
Like the 2011 White Light Festival performance of ‘Passio-Compassio’, where dervishes spun rapturously to the music of Bach, ‘Vertical Road’ is also a cross-cultural performance, blending Western and world performers with Eastern spirituality and mysticism. Khan draws inspiration from the Sufi poet Rumi for this work, and the Islamic influence is visible in the whirling dervish-moments and the Kathak Indian classical dance elements. The Playbill also indicates that the dance was inspired from much more like “the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder” and “the illustrations of William Blake”.

Yet in the spirituality was not just represented as the dancers connection with something higher. ‘Vertical Road’ had a story of sorts, but thematically it is about the connection we have with spirituality and how we face a disconnect now because of our immersion in technology. In time with the somewhat industrial sounding music, the dancers flowed into some aggressive poses, as if fighting with the capoeira martial art style instead of dancing anything recognizably classical. The sparingly lit stage added to the stark effect. Seven oversized dominos stood at the front right corner of the stage, carefully placed and deliberately knocked over at times as if to demonstrate the power one individual could have over others. Whichever dancer proved the most powerful I could not be sure, but I inferred a challenge to masculinity, or possibly just a way to prove the freedom to choose, when one female fought off a male aggressor as her lover fell away. In the end, though the dancers may have been able to achieve transcendence, as a curtain from earlier falls and is no longer an obstruction to them, the audience may realize they secrets of transcendence were not entirely revealed unto them, making ‘Vertical Road’ an entrancing puzzle.

(Left: Elias Lazaridis; Right: Salah El Brogy)

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