MIAF: Vertical Road

Fiona Mackrell

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL: On the one hand movements, colours and shapes in Vertical Road embody the visceral, even anatomic, viewed from a clinician’s distance. Then on the other is a search for some greater meaning that can’t be found.
MIAF: Vertical Road
The opening in darkness is of slow tinkling sounds, water droplets and rain, then as the screen pulls back, arranged in a half circle like teeth in a dentist's mould, cream and grey, are seven dancers crouched. Behind them, an opaque veil blurs a man trying to write in arcing and frantic strokes with his hands, he’s trying to push through the veil and communicate something urgently but we don’t know what it is. These two images seem emblematic of the themes in Vertical Road, the most recent work of the acclaimed Akram Khan Dance Company currently playing as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival at the Malthouse. On the one hand are movements, colours and shapes that embody the visceral even anatomic, viewed from a clinician’s distance, and on the other is a search for some greater meaning that can’t be found. We follow a Traveller. He has come from behind the veil to find the dancers standing like entombed warriors. He can move them like chess pieces, but in interacting with them he brings the statutes to life. Spring rain turns to panting and loud insistent industrial throbbing, winds rises as though in a lonely place and the light flickers and shadows. Dust clouds around them as they move to a metronomic beat. The choreography drags the dancers to the floor again and again. They crawl, they fall, they twirl like seeds on the wind. At times the dancers bodily pulse like a heart muscle seen beating on an ultrasound, they jerk and twist and quiver like prisoners being electrocuted, they throb like blood in a vein, they sweep and circle arms forward and round like earthen matadors. Words that come to mind randomly are gristle, amoebae, Abu Ghraib; spooky. Akram Khan has suggested the work is about ‘a lot of concepts’. It is, and that has drawn out much of the emotion. It’s an exploration of consequence, religion, spirituality, and the afterlife, of the soul. Trying to suck out the soul, and examine it, however leaves us in a place not of transcendence but of brutality, emptiness and wastage – the sludge of organic existence and leaves the human ‘spirit’ lost. At first the seven dancers move as a group, but gradually figures stand out. There is a blond haired counter weight to the Traveller, angel-like in his ethereal other-worldliness. He and the Traveller dual, shadow and observe one another uncomfortably. The Traveller tries to control these beings like toys. But they are not always a willing set of pawns, they fight back, grab, push and pull. In more reflective moments they are able to meet with one another, providing some moments of tenderness in an otherwise stark place. The Traveller, played by Salah El Brogy, is imbued, with a messianic quality due to his physicality and wonderful hair, and is clearly the main character within the ensemble. His seemed a very inward journey however, painful but not touching. Otherwise, few dancers stood out within the ensemble in terms of their capturing of a moment or emotional impact, except for Australian-born dancer, Paul Zivkovich. As the angelic character, Zivkovich produced some of the most jaw dropping movements, was charismatic, drawing the eye, and provided emotional power to his performance. The eight dancers were carefully selected by Akram Khan to have different cultural backgrounds and skills and there was an intense process of improvisation and development across the whole production team to create the work. Given that, it seems odd that those differences were not given greater expression or that the work did not strive to bring more variety to the forms of cultural dance movement possible. The imperative of the grinding concept seems to have outweighed that human potential. Some parts of the performance clunked – particularly where the use of the black tablet props were involved. Setting them up as dominos that fell, felt far too ham-fisted as a metaphor and transforming them into holy books produced ‘acted’ moments that seemed forced. The final moment too, was disappointingly twee, while the sequence that led up to it was powerful and pulled the narrative together, though it wasn't especially original. Nitin Sawhney’s score filled the brief of being atmospheric and ‘undance-like’ with clanging bells, crackles like fire, cistern filling droplets and rumblings like a rocket taking off. It was most enjoyable where it strayed into sitar and tabla beating, reminiscent of a space cowboy landscape. The costume design worked beautifully to produce the unburnished ceramic tones and form of Asiatic warriors. There were warnings for those who may be sensitive to strobing light and ear plugs on offer to cope with the thunderous, at times chest vibrating, bass. Vertical Road has only been travelling a month since it debuted at The Curve Theatre in Leicester, with Melbourne its fourth season. It is still evolving. It is an intriguing but not uplifting work, yet strangely this seems to be what Khan was trying to achieve. Melbourne Festival 8 – 23 October 2010 Vertical Road Akram Khan Company Dates: Tues 19 – Sat 23 October at 8pm The CUB Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre Dur: 1 hr 15mins Tickets: Full $55, Groups (8+) $49.5, Concession $41.25, Student $25 Ticketmaster: 1300 723 038 M-Tix (03) 9685 5111 Choreographer Akram Khan Original Score Nitin Sawhney Performed by Eulalia Ayguade Farro (Spain), Konstatina Efthymiadou (Greece), Salah El Brogy (Egypt), Ahmed Khemis (Algeria/Tunisia), Young Jin Kim (Korea), Yen-Ching Lin (Taiwan), Andrej Petrovic (Slovakia), Paul Zivkovich (Australia)

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out www.fionamackrell.com