Responses to Akram Khan's "Vertical Road"

Reed student Kiri-Strack Gros has submitted a blog on her reaction to Akram Khan's "Vertical Road," that White Bird presented at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last night, Oct. 17. The audience response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.


White Bird Dance presented Akram Khan Company’s Vertical Road last night at the Schnitz.  The dancers’ athleticism, the poetics inherent within the piece, and the collaboration between the choreographer, Khan, and all of the designers were the most striking aspects of this beautiful evening-length work.  When the lights came up, there was no one on stage, just a brightly lit scrim--lengths of light, translucent fabric, some taut, some billowy, sewn together and pulled across the stage for a backdrop.  A figure of a man approaches the scrim from behind, touches it.  Waves of fabric surge out from the point of contact and ripple back down.  The man behind the curtain plays with the scrim, jabbing it, scribbling on it, his figure sometimes clear and sometimes foggy. 

When the stage goes dark, seven dancers enter to form a wedge-shaped group centerstage and one dancer stands alone, upstage left.  That solitary dancer, Salah El Brogy, begins to walk forward as the stage brighten and touches one of the ebony tablets that have been set up downstage left since before the house opened.  They fall, their clatter lining up with a clatter within the music.  It is a cue--the group begins to dance.  Their movement is fast, full, and desperate.  It originates in the core and works its way past strong, flexible shoulders and to the tips of the dancers’ fingers.  I can hear their rhythmic breathing; their exhales accentuate movement points.  As the dancers move, brush their head, or slap their bodies, clouds of white dust or flour fill the air; by their movement, the dancers create their own scenic environment. 

The dancers move in a pattern; often, one of them is doing something different while the rest move as a group.  El Brogy walks among the corps, who are moving in unison, or one dancer moves while the others are still.  The visual effect of the dancers hitting their flour- or dust-filled costumes and creating their own mysterious fog is striking; combined with the motif of one dancer doing something different than the others, the stage picture becomes stunning. 

When a howling wind picks up, it indicates start of a new section of the piece.  There is a duet between Yen-Ching Lin and Andrej Petrovic, where he controls her, spins her, lifts her, throws her by using straps sewn onto the back of her costume.  Sung Hoon Kim has a solo: it is virtuosic, beautiful, and pained.  His lengthy, flowing limbs extend his powerful movement and the inclusion of sharp, staccato hits conveys his pain--pain that is also evident on El Brogy’s contorted face. 

The wind howls; most of the dancers sit stage left.  El Brogy, Elias Lazaridis, and Sade Alleyne are left standing; Alleyne is frozen, facing upstage, where El Brogy left her.  El Brogy and Larzaridis engage in combat with no contact, where El Brogy finds a way to control Lazaridis with the force of blows that do no strike.  El Brogy is a Puppet Master, and Lazaridis is losing control of  his own body.  Lazaridis defeated, the Puppet Master turns to Alleyne; the movement that follows is athletic and awe-inspiring; there are amazing leaps that look initiated by El Brogy but are done without assistance and torso-driven movement that highlights Alleyne’s strong shoulders.

From the sitting dancers, Rudi Cole comes alive.  The Puppet Master brings him to the ebony tablets and Cole becomes fascinated.  The way Cole and El Brogi act in conjunction with the tablets is reminiscent of both a religion and a drug.  The tablets give them power and fuel Cole’s solo, a piece filled with curved arms and occasional fleeting footwork.  During this solo, Lin and Petrovic have another duet, with Petrovic once again moving and controlling Lin, but this time by grabbing her body instead of the straps.  This duet continues until El Brogi invades their space and grabs Lin.  I was unsure if Petrovic’s handling of Lin was consensual, but I know that El Brogi’s is not.  Lin tries to escape; he doesn’t let her.  She cannot move beyond his range until the rest of the dancers descend upon them.  As the company kneels, Lin stands and moves beyond the circle of dancers.  She looks back; El Brogi stands and, outmaneuvering the distance between them, grabs the back of Lin’s neck. 

Darkness falls and the wind whistles again.  Pauline Ee Laet leads the seven dancers into a repetitive sequence of movement; dancing as corps again, they are shuffling and spinning and outlining an invisible spiral above their heads with their hands.  Vertical Road is almost entirely about the arms, the torso, the upper body.  Some breathtaking leaps were powered by the dancers’ legs, but the dance is about the shape and motion of the arms.  El Brogi stands and with Lazaridis trailing behind, the corps discreetly exits. 

The figure of a man appears, backlit, behind the scrim.  It is Lazaridis’s body, but not his character.  The Puppet Master approaches him; with his hand, El Brogi can raise and lower the shadow.  But the shadow breaks away, and as Lazaridis exits, the figure of Petrovic enters.  The rest of the corps enters and places their hands on the scrim for clear, crisp handprints.  El Brogi begins one long last solo; his back breaks, he tries to fly, he loses control.  Finally he approaches the cyc, now devoid of shadows, once more.  He raises a hand to the brilliantly white fabric; as he does touches it, it is cut loose from above and flutters down in a stunning wave of light and sound.

The emotional torrent of this piece is let loose by the audience’s standing ovation and long, sincere applause.  After receiving their bouquets from Paul and Walter, in apparent gratitude for such a warm welcome, several of the dancers, starting with Cole, throw their bouquets at the audience!  It was a heartwarming example of interaction between the audience and the performers and of Portland’s warm welcome.