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PARIS, 6 APRIL 2011 — Akram Khan’s latest creation, premiered at the Curve theatre in Leicester, England, last September, takes you out of this world and into another dimension. Beautiful and infinitely moving, it is a timeless piece and one of his finest works. I met the charismatic British-born dancer/choreographer in a Parisian brasserie in between rehearsals at the Theatre de la Ville where his company was opening the following evening. Unassuming and never happier than when working in a studio, he spoke of the origins of his new work which he described as an abstract narration rather than a literal story, and of the events which occurred drawing him towards its subject of spirituality. 

"Vertical Road sprung from a strange encounter I had with a taxi-driver in Australia two years ago," he told me. "I was exhausted and feeling down after a performance at the Sydney Opera House and decided to take a taxi back to my hotel, a thing I never do. When one drew up, I was elbowed aside by a rude couple who jumped in and then poked their heads out of the window to ask me whether I was Akram Khan. I replied, 'Maybe.' Then they asked whether I’d just danced at the Opera. I replied, 'Maybe.' 'Well, thanks so much,' they enthused, 'it was great.' And off they went without another glance! Assholes. 

Akram Khan Company in Vertical Road
Photo: Richard Haughton

"Ten minutes later, I got into another taxi and felt like hearing my father’s voice so I telephoned him, something I never do on tour although we’re close. As I hung up after a casual chat, in Bengali, the language we use at home, the taxi stopped and the driver asked, astonishingly in Bengali, whether my father was from Algichar, a small village in Bangladesh. Only 200 people in the world could know that and 195 of them live there, the other four being my parents, my sister and me, leaving the only one other person — a taxi driver at midnight at the other side of the world. 

"I began to feel paranoid and asked him how he knew. 

"He began to cry, telling me his name was Jilu, that he’d been my father’s closest friend and had been looking for him for years. After my father had emigrated to London and he’d left to make his life in Sydney, they’d lost track of each other. So I rang my father back and handed him the phone.

"It was a case of if, and if, and if. What were the odds of them ever meeting again? Were those two taxi-snatchers really angels in disguise? Anyway, that incident triggered off the idea that maybe there’s something bigger than what one can see.

Akram Khan Company in Vertical Road
Photo: Richard Haughton

"So, Vertical Road is inspired by the notion of spirituality, of how one event can have an impact on the next, and so on. I was fascinated by the idea of staging a piece in post-apocalyptic time and introducing Terracotta warriors, those guardians of China's First Emperor. After having been undiscovered and motionless for thousands of years, I wanted to bring them to life, and so we came up with the idea of a traveller discovering them. My ideas began to take form after I went to see Salah El Brogy perform, the dancer who became the ‘hero’ of Vertical Road. I was looking for someone spiritual, and the quality of his performance — even of steps that were of little interest — drew my attention. I asked him what he was thinking of onstage, and he replied that he was not thinking of anything, simply speaking to God. It was enough for me to hire him immediately."

The Anglo-Indian choreographer then told me how the work, whose title derives from the exploration of the vertical connection between heaven and hell, came into being. He explained that while the period of preparation — when he and his collaborators got together and accumulated as many ideas as they could — was quite long, the creative process itself was fast.

"We looked at the concept of the soul separating from the body," he said, "and of the importance of creating an atmosphere. I’ve known the composer, Nitin Sawhney, for fifteen years now and after collaborating for over eleven, we know each others’ requirements well. Then there’s Jess Gormley who works on research, and the scenery, costume and lighting designers, Kimie Nakano and Jesper Kongshaug, as well as my team of dancers from Europe, the Near-East and Asia. It was, however, our dramatist, Ruth Little, who came up with a last-minute idea.

Akram Khan in Vertical Road
Photo: Richard Haughton

"She read in a nature review that a meteorite falls on the earth every sixty minutes, which brought to mind the image that if we stood still long enough, we’d all be covered in dust. Our homes are swept to keep clean, as houses shrouded in dust have been abandoned, symbolic of death. So I covered my terracotta warriors in dust. The costumes posed a problem as well, since, obviously, the dancers had to represent warriors, yet they had to wear something relatively dusty and dirty, as they’d been motionless for so long. I also wanted the costumes layered, to give the impression of bandages, of Egyptian mummies, yet at the same time they had to be Asian in style."

Khan also added that his creation, which he described as "masculine and earthy," tended to reflect a dark period in his own life.

Akram Khan Company in Vertical Road
Photo: Richard Haughton

Be that as it may, his "dark" choreography was interspersed with moments of total serenity and beauty. From the opening scene — stark, and of great clarity — one is transported to a far and distant land. A man (the mystical, otherworldly Salah El Brogy) is silhouetted banging his head against a backcloth of semi-transparent white plastic to the sounds of gently falling rain. The dancers erupt on stage, swirling in unison, streaking across the stage, now faster, now slower, to Sawhney’s deafening, heart-pounding score. There are slow-motion sensual duos — where two bodies melt into one— and forceful, powerful trios moving faster than one’s eye can follow, before the return of the strong, graceful groups, where big, seamless movements blend magically into a throbbing, rhythmic accompaniment. The visual images are metaphors where time has no meaning. Is man saved or left abandoned? That, says Khan enigmatically, is for each spectator to judge for himself.
Brilliantly conceived as it shifts back and forth between past, present and future, with its Butoh style movements and African tribal dances, the work is one of startling originality with instants of harrowing intensity.

All of Khan’s creations, each surprisingly different from the precedent, bring new ideas combined with a new way of moving, while choreography, costumes, lighting and music form one harmonious whole. And this was just the rehearsal.

Upcoming performances of Akram Khan's 'Vertical Road':

19, 20 April 2011
Damascus Opera, Damascus, Syria

26, 27 April 2011
Madina Theatre, Beirut, Lebanon

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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