The celebrated choreographer Akram Khan (London-born, Bangladeshi-bred) brought his 2010 production Vertical Road to UCLA's Royce Hall in October. Featuring eight dancers and extremely minimal production design, the piece is inspired by Rumi's worldview, particularly the following passage (which appears in the press materials):
"I died from minerality and became vegetable
And from vegetativeness I died and became animal
Then why fear disappearance through death?
Next time I shall die, bringing forth wings and feathers like angels
After that, I'll soar higher than angels -
What you cannot imagine,
I shall be that."
Kudos are due to Mr. Khan for taking on the task of illustrating, through the medium of dance, an idea as grand and complex as the evolution of spirit - even if the resulting work is only partially successful.
The dancers in the company, hailing from all over Asia and the Middle East, are all beyond impressive in their physical ability; and the movements—both individual and in tandem—are inventive and often astoundingly powerful. Using very few props—a huge translucent curtain, a small black book, and some white dust—they manage to convey various stations in this spiritual journey, along with all the attendant challenges, struggles, conflicts and resolutions.
The trouble begins somewhere around the middle of this sparse production, as it becomes clear that all the various aspects of the work are rather limited in range. Actions start to repeat; the visual palate, already bland and earth-tonish, does not change; and most irksome of all, the score by renowned composer-producer Nitin Sawhney (Shakira, Sting, Taio Cruz) never reaches far beyond the primitive, rhythm-driven march that begins the show. The blandness and homogeneity is particularly disappointing in a show that is, after all, about evolution.
What compounds the problem is the fact that Mr. Khan has chosen to highlight the harsher aspects of the vertical road that is the path of spirit. In doing so, he has shortchanged himself and his audience. Long stretches of agony (as dancers writhe, punch, kick, and thrash their way across the stage) are only occasionally punctured by short bursts of release. There are fleeting celebrations, most notably the beautiful whirling by Egyptian dancer Salah El Brogy, and the piece ends with a brief ecstatic moment: the taking down of the translucent curtain, presumably to symbolize the tearing of the ‘veil' that, per Rumi, separates us from the inner divine. But Rumi also insists that the entire journey upward can be filled with an undercurrent of joy—an element that is in short supply throughout Vertical Road.
Omid Arabian writes about film, music, theatre and dance in Los Angeles.