When I interviewed Akram Khan in 2009 (see the ‘Articles’ section, if you’re interested), he told me that he is fascinated by the spiritual, and that his next piece would reflect that interest. Well, ‘Vertical Road’ certainly fulfils its brief, but I’m afraid I didn’t find his interpretation of the subject as fascinating as Khan clearly does. The piece is a series of vignettes, held together by tentative, slow sections, which explore different forms of worship, love and what it might mean to be human. The whole evening was a little too worthy for my taste.
I agree wholeheartedly with my companion (who liked the piece more than I did), that in order to pull off something that invests in such emotionally complex territory the choreographer and dancers must believe in what they’re doing. Where we disagree, however, is whether this was successful in Vertical Road. That Khan believes in what he’s doing, I have no doubt. That the dancers do, too, I am more sceptical about: there were times when it felt like watching a play where the actors are not keen on the script but giving it their all in an attempt to salvage it.
And, to some extent, they did. The dancers were stunning, as Khan’s company usually are. His lines, leaps, drops and spins are spikily graceful and rhythmical menacing by turns, and the dancers come together and flow apart as a skilled unit. The unison moves are affecting and effective, and the piece often feels energetic, witty, exuberant. However, the slow passages were frustratingly self-indulgent. Frankly, they were dull. Short, slower passages make an interesting juxtaposition with the more dynamic moments, but the slow outweighed the fun for me and left me checking my watch.
Although the piece had some arrestingly beautiful moments, the aesthetic pleasure was, for me, somewhat overwhelmed by the feeling that one needed to ‘get it’ and to see the deeper meaning behind the piece. Its lack of momentum prevented me from swallowed up in the movement, and instead left me frustrated.
Nitin Sawhney’s score is often more of a soundscape than a melody, but has enough thumping rhythm to drive the dancers forward in the faster passages. His music perfectly complements the slow moments – I’m just not sure that’s a compliment. All in all, although I cannot fault the dancers, this piece did not speak to me. Perhaps it was too subtle, too spiritual for this sleepy atheist – certainly, I seem to be alone in my ambivalence. It has been positively received elsewhere, so I leave you with more upbeat reviews: The FT here, Guardian here and Telegraph here.