Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Akram Khan: Vertical Road @ The Curve, Leicester

At the height of my ballet training (between the ages of 14-17), I was told that I didn't have the body of a ballet dancer and it was suggested that I try "modern", as in modern dance, instead.  To put it mildly, I was horrified.  The contemporary dance performances I had seen resembled the thrashing-abouts of patients in mental institutions - there was no technique, no beauty, nothing that came even close to the precision, graceful lines of ballet.  Furthermore, I found choreographers and the art form pretentious, self-indulgent and utterly pointless.

But I've since grown up and, in my frequent trips to Sadler's Wells and other dance theaters throughout Britain and the States, I've grown to like - no, love - modern dance, even more than ballet.  Don't get me wrong, I still nearly weep when the curtain raises in the second act of Nutcracker, but more with appreciation and less with the wistfulness and longing I once felt.

Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan is one who is partly responsible for this transformation. Bahok
last year had my leaning forward on the edge of my seat during the entire performance.  Set in an airport departure lounge (the stage is cleverly transformed to portray this and the original score by acclaimed composer/musician Nitin Sawhney is cleverly integrated), eight dancers from different cultural backgrounds struggle to communicate with each other and subsequently "tell" their "stories" to each other.  Had you informed me of the premise before the performance, I would have been dubious - such attempts at "multiculturalism" often fall apart into a nebulous cheesy-oh-what-a-happy-ending disaster (and if it had, I probably would have walked out).  But Khan handled such personal exploration brilliantly, that what evolved and ensued was actually a genius interpretation of cultural intersections and the importance of such (mixed) culture and heritage in our lives.

His newest work, Vertical Road, premiered at The Curve in Leicester last week and I was fortunate enough to see it on Saturday evening.   I hadn't read anything about the piece before attending - only that the Guardian had named it "beautiful and harrowing", which did, I admit, plant a seed of apprehension in my stomach.

The percussive opening and raucous rhythms throughout conjured for me, images of machines in a post-apocalyptic age - a very frightening noise indeed.   The unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach intensified.  And the dancers moved with a frenetic energy, as if shedding themselves of their own skin.  The movements then became primal, almost animalistic, and I noted the way this made the bodies appear under the loose but thin taupe-themed costumes; like slabs of flesh or meat pounding against the stage floor.  Now I knew what the Guardian meant by "harrowing".  There was a rawness conveyed that made me think of that metallic taste of blood that comes when you've bit your cheek - strange, I know, but the only way I can describe it.  Fluidity came later, as did tenderness and love, so it seemed.  I was very touched - moved, really - by the performance as a whole.  I never knew I could be brought to tears by the beauty of what was being expressed on stage.

I guess I was also moved by the fact Khan chose to premiere this piece at The Curve.  The hall is small - it reminds me less of the great London theaters and more of my high school auditorium.  Though it is (rather) newly built and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, it's a humble place; you don't get the usual snotty London crowds coming in, the ones who know all the choreographers by name, have yearly subscriptions, etc.  Not that there's anything wrong with that sort of crowd.  The Curve attracts a different audience - one borne out of curiosity, I feel, and genuine interest, rather than one of prestige or bragging rights, which is sometimes what I sense is at the bottom of quite a lot of the London theatre-goers (you can disagree, I don't mind).  And it's never a big audience, which makes me sad, but grateful for those who do turn up.  As a former performer myself, I'm always sad to see empty seats.

Khan himself was in the audience the night I was there, and afterwards, John took our programme (I was too shy and tailed behind) to him to sign.  He was very gracious and thanked us for coming when we told him we were great fans of his.  I'm always in awe of such artists; completely intimidated by their brilliance and creativity. 

I don't want to give anything away (as there are quite a few special effects that make the piece truly remarkable), as I really want you to see it and interpret the piece for yourself - part of the enjoyment of going with other people is discussing the performance after the performance and hearing all the details you might have missed that someone else might have picked up on.  It's going to be at Sadler's Wells from October 5th-9th, so go if you have the chance.

But if you're really dying to know about Khan's vision behind the piece, here's a video with a bit of explanation:

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