BY JANE ROSENBERG
A darkened stage, the sound of running water, a translucent curtain covering the breadth of the stage, and a barely perceptible figure behind it. As the figure pushes his head against the plastic sheeting, desperate to emerge, intent on entering our world, we find ourselves propelled into the mythic world of Akram Khan’s Vertical Road.
The Los Angeles audience for contemporary dance gathered for a CAP UCLA program at Royce Hall Friday night to witness Khan’s company perform a work that grappled with a subject that has engaged the poets, philosophers, and scientists of every generation: man’s place in the cosmos and his need to understand it. From man’s birth, through the nature of the animal self, to the pursuit of enlightenment, the choreography attempted to reflect man’s struggle to gain knowledge.
The opening of the piece was visually stunning. Our hero, the dancer Salah El Brogy, moved against the sheeting, and with the sound of water as accompaniment, we witnessed a metaphorical “ultrasound” of the womb. Then the “child,” in a flurry of movement set the plastic sheeting rippling in concentric waves, and with that gesture, the throbbing, pulsing dance of the tribe began. Dancers gathered in the foreground like nomads on the desert, while our hero, off to the side, “played” alone, soon to be inexorably pulled into the dynamic of the group. The music, composed by Nitin Sawhney, intensified, evolving into a roar of pounding beats. Powdery dust flew spectacularly from the stamping bodies of the seven dancers. Their movements — rising out of rounded backs and hunched shoulders — grew into violent arcs, rising arms, and spinning torsos. This was ensemble dancing at its best.
For the first half of the seventy-minute piece, Khan’s narrative intentions seemed coherent. Though there was no programmatic explanation of his drama, I followed his references, as he seemed to trace man’s evolution in his quest for meaning. Kathak dance of India, a strong influence on Kahn’s work, with its ritualized dance forms and ancient sources, fit neatly into his storytelling bent. Rumi’s poetry and Sufi traditions were referenced. And the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic that follows the fates of battling princes (alluded to in the costumes designed by Kimie Nakano) lent a mythic quality to the dance drama.
But the very notion of epic storytelling was also the piece’s undoing. Without any specificity as to what the action represented, after the first half my mind worked overtime to follow the unfolding dance. Rite of Spring, Nijinsky’s historic work, still startling in its daring dance forms and Stravinsky’s visceral score, had clarity of purpose. And though the ballet was ritualistic, fierce, and abstract in nature, it’s tribal dances followed an unmistakable line of thought.
The Minimalist principles of abstract dance follow a logic and structure. Clearly, Kahn was not after abstraction. He favored narrative where it intersected myth. And though the dancers’ fine performances drew on movements from world dance, often achieving mythic proportions, it was unsustainable as patterns unraveled, leaving solo dancers and duos dancing beautifully, but unfocused, as the piece unwound. Towards the end of the work, the plastic sheeting, once again, became a breathtaking canvas for a shadow play of dance, reminiscent of the shadow puppetry of Asia. I couldn’t help but feel that with the visual acumen of Kahn and his lighting designer, Jesper Kongshaug, the piece was exploring fascinating territory, often achieving heights of beauty, but would have benefited from a shortened, more concise vision.
In spite of my reservations, however, I can’t help but applaud a choreographer, who, in spite of our society’s race to master technologies and speed through existence, feels an imperative to slow down and search for layers of meaning within his art form.
Photos courtesy of CAP UCLA.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.
To read more iRoM reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.