Vertical Road is Akram Khan’s latest contemporary ensemble work in which he focuses on spirituality and the question of faith. The Vertical Road of the title is the sacred road, the path of ascent, as opposed to the secular life of the horizontal road. For this production Khan has brought together eight dancers from around the globe and he continues his collaboration with award-winning composer Nitin Sawhney, whose score complements the choreography beautifully, combining sounds from the natural world with a chillingly mystical and at times eerie soundtrack.

Richard Haughton
Richard Haughton

The performance opens with the sound of rain and gushing water. Seven of the dancers are kneeling at the front of the stage, perfectly still, while the eighth, Salah El Brogy is trapped behind a transparent screen struggling to find a way through to them and as he moves his arms in a circular motion he causes the screen to ripple like a pond. The rain is displaced by the sound of wind when he crosses to the other side of the screen to join the dancers and his very presence seems to breathe life into the ancient statue-like figures covered in dust. He has to physically lift the dancers to move them, until; gradually awakened by his life force, they dance in unison to a thumping heartbeat of sound.

The collective dancing is courageous and bold, filled with energy and power which subsumes Brogy’s individuality as he joins them. Throughout individual dancers break away and perform in a series of vignettes. In one scene Brogy manipulates two of the dancers, guiding them remotely with his own movements like a puppet master minus the strings. They follow his bidding until his power wanes and another dancer eventually takes control of him. The significance of the sacred, religious text is symbolised by a collection of tablets or books piled stage left. And one dancer signifies the power of the word as he takes a text and pays homage to it with his performance.

In the final third of the evening the tone and the pace change with a shift to a more subdued mix of affection, pain, anger and compassion as a male dancer comforts another until she is stolen from his grasp by Brogy. The moment is broken by a thunderclap and a series of lightning strikes with the dancers echoing a military formation on stage and appearing only in the flashes of light. The stage is then bathed in light as a single figure appears before Brogy, striking him and rejecting him from the spiritual world. Brogy is back where he started, on the outside, separated from the group by the screen we saw in the first scene. Now we can see the rain we could only hear at the beginning, as it runs down the screen and Brogy reaches skywards in vain.

Is the dancer on the outside forever? Or is the path to enlightenment a more complex one which needs to be travelled more than once to demonstrate faith? This 70 minute piece leaves many questions unanswered but this is ambitious, thought provoking choreography of the highest calibre. There is no doubt that as an audience we should keep faith in the talent of Khan.

****1