This simple yet primal, profound realization is an apt metaphor for Khan’s work, which touches both the soul and the body on a fundamental level. It is therefore quite appropriate that Vertical Road will be presented as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival on October 23 and 24 at the Rose Theater.
“The rehearsal space in Indian classical dance is like a temple. The creative space for contemporary dance is a science lab,” said Khan, a native Brit of Bangladeshi heritage. As some- one of Eastern roots based in the West, Khan marries the spiritual with the technical in his choreography, resulting in an invigorating artistic voice.
The inspiration for Vertical Road struck suddenly during a trip to Australia. “In my own life I felt like a sense of spirituality was missing growing up in London, so I wanted to tackle something about spirituality,” said Khan. “There was something quite spiritual happening in a taxi in Australia, coincidentally, and basically from that, I thought I wanted to explore spirituality in a contemporary context.”
The mystical moment in the taxi may have simply been a catalyst for a simmering need for spiritual engagement. Lincoln Center’s Ehrenkranz Artistic Director Jane Moss notes, “If you look at Eastern traditions, they almost all start with the body as the vehicle for spiritual expression. It’s why you have serious yoga practices at the root of many of the Eastern traditions; martial arts is another manifestation of that—where spiritual expression begins in the body.”
While Vertical Road was inspired in part by Sufism and Rumi poetry, it opts not for inspirational platitudes or sunny optimism, instead embracing, metaphorically and literally, the shadows in our lives. “This piece touches on some of the darker aspects of spirituality,” said Moss. “Not just of spirituality, but of human existence that ideally lead us upwards to a spiritual solution,” noting that Sufism is, in part, "about moving vertically."
Khan’s works meticulously combine the various elements of dance theater. His choreography might draw its low center of gravity and expressive arms from Kathak; but he has developed a unique movement language notable for its simultaneous virtuosity and accessibility. Lightning quick repetitions become optical illusions. Energy ripples in waves from dancer to dancer, then combines and permeates the audience.
It may seem precisely calculated until Khan explains his method. “In rehearsal, some- times things just have to fall apart, like in the lighting, the set, which is very simple, and the music. Sometimes they were not working; but at times things need to fall apart in order for the right things to fall together. “
Music is paramount for Khan, who studied at P.A.R.T.S., Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s school in Belgium. “I relate to music in a spiritual way, so music provides a lot of the atmosphere that we need in order for the body to react,” Khan said. The varied score by British Indian composer/producer Sawhney is also interwoven with natural sounds of rain and wind, creating haunting, eerie moments.
Jesper Kongshaug designed the lighting in a trial-and-error process. When discussing lighting designs, Khan noted, “I don’t like when people talk about an idea... Show it to me, and then I’ll tell you what my reaction is.” The lighting complements and dramatizes the spare, yet metaphorically rich set, consisting primarily of translucent fabric that diffuses the figures behind it, or reverberates from a touch like a stone tossed into a pond. Collaborating on the set design were Khan, Kongshaug and Kimie Nakano, who also designed the long, split-skirt muslin costumes evocative of samurai garb.
Khan has worked with widely-ranging cast numbers, from solos and duets to up to 50 dancers in the recent London Olympics opening ceremony. In the cast of Vertical Road, Khan notes: “The soloist [Salah El Brogy] is from Egypt. He is like a messenger—one who has walked in isolation, alone for many years until he stumbles across some statues. These statues are people who eventually come to life, and so he discovers the relationship between himself and the others. As a dancer, I was looking for bodies that might be able to possess an essence of that spirituality, and he’s one of those dancers.”
Spirituality is very difficult to define because it’s one’s interpretation of it,” the choreographer said. “It’s not like the Bible, or the Koran, where it’s very specific—there is a right and wrong. [For me] it’s formless. That’s what I call spirituality. Religion is form, and so I thought, how do we express 'formless' with the body, which is a form? It was a huge challenge, but I liked the idea of that challenge, so we started with that.”
Khan is a perfect example of someone who bridges cultures, with first-hand experience with the subtleties of cultural traits. “What’s interesting is that most Asian bodies— dancers—have, inherently, a sense of spirituality. With western dancers, it’s something more emotional rather than spiritual,” he said, adding that there are always exceptions.
“A big theme of the White Light Festival is the relationship between the body and the self,” says Jane Moss. And the festival also celebrates “music’s unmatched capacity to illuminate the many dimensions of our interior lives.” "Akram Khan is the perfect White Light artist because his works touch on many of the intersecting themes.”
Susan Yung is a New York-based writer covering dance, art, and culture for various outlets, including ephemeralist.com.