Death cultivates visibility...
The image does not reflect reality, but rather, the spectacular end of all reality.
To see, means to die; to watch, dying.
Wind and sand revel in worsting the eye, making it cry.
Yellowed with age, the image yields only nostalgia: image of a lost image.
The Line of the Horizon, Edmond Jabès
Contemporary life, says choreographer Akram Khan in a note in the program, is pulled along by horizontal forces: we sacrifice depth and height for breadth. And this is precisely my dilemma with Khan's extraordinary dance work, Vertical Road: I would like to spend a few days thinking about it, but simply don't have the time it deserves. This, for all its physical excitement, is a deeply contemplative work: a rich hour of dance that explores the other axis, the still point of the turning world where height and depth become manifest.
The design is absolutely simple, and consists of a series of revelations. When we enter the theatre, the stage is hidden by a black curtain that slowly draws back to reveal a bare space. A flexible transluscent membrane divides the space, with perhaps a third of the stage hidden behind it. A group of figures is folded in a semicircle near the screen, unmoving: they are dressed in white unisex costumes, a tunic over trousers, recalling the linens of the dead, perhaps, or the robes of a Sufi devotee.
There is a dim figure behind the screen, limned by a golden light, but we cannot see him clearly: he reaches forward and touches the screen, and his hand is suddenly clearly outlined, although the rest of his body remains blurred. We watch his hand as it dips and weaves, inscribing something on the screen: we can see the pressure of his finger, but the text is invisible. "The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on," as Edward Fitzgerald says in his sumptuous translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The lights black out: and when they rise again, the membrane is opaque: we are in the material world, cut off from the divine.
The rest of Vertical Road is a series of approaches to the divine, a struggle between the earthy weight of the human body and its desire for flight. Khan's seven dancers enact possession, desire, fear, power: most of all, a sense of possession, as if an angel inhabits the body, violent and desirous, and just as suddenly leaves, the dancer standing puzzled and alone, his hands empty. The movement whirls out of a catatonic stillness (the dancers can be picked up and put down like pieces of furniture) into ectastic states. spinning like - but not exactly like - Sufi dervishes. The axis of the spin wobbles: the dancers might cartwheel in strange, insect-like formations diagonally across the stage, or dislodge into a sudden, disconcerting disharmony.
Sufism, the most poetic of all religions, is a continuous echo through this dance: the immanence explored here is mystic, the promise of a personal understanding of the divine. There is a constant dialogue of the text in tension with the body: the word - represented by seven tablets, just as there are seven dancers - is placed in ascetic contrast with the body. At one point, two lovers writhe across the stage, tumbling over and over, while a solitary dancer sits still with the tablets, posed in contemplation.
This apparent dichotomy is not straightforward: one of the great paradoxes in mystic writings is their erotic nature, how the most religious experiences, which struggle at the very limits of the possibilities of human expression, emerge as love poems and in metaphors of sensual desire: the poetry St John of the Cross or Rumi, or the visions of Hildegard von Bingen or the love mysticism of St Bernard of Clarivaux. The more ecstatic the body, the more presently it insists: a contradiction Khan's choreography perfectly expresses.
The movement is thrilling. It expresses the impulse to flight - the bodies of the dancers sometimes seem to lift of their own accord, rising out of their material limitations. In one final, beautiful scene, the dancer left alone on the stage wriggles and turns as if his shoulders are itching, as if he is sprouting wings from his shoulder blades, and for a moment, as his writhing becomes more violent, it is almost as if the wings are there. Equally, the movement makes us aware of the weight of bodies, of their material density, as they fall, smack, on the stage, or crawl haltingly towards a moment of death.
The dance is driven by an incredible score by Nitin Sawhney. It opens with the sound of wind: then there begins an insistent, throbbing pulse, a drumbeat that gets into the blood like fever, which itself moves the dancers, so all seven seem to be pulsing as one body. This retreats into a play of soaring voices backed by a menacing electronic groan, that rise up out of silences in which we can only hear the dancers gasping for air. The score is at once beautiful and terrifying, like the angelic intelligences it invokes.
This is the sort of work which invites the audience to make its own narratives. I am not religious, and certainly do not believe in life after death; yet I find these invocations of the divine deeply powerful. It's a function, maybe, of their stern beauty, which exists in their hesitations and doubts and refusals, as much as in the beautiful completion of particular gestures. I guess such works - written or performed - summon within me an involuntary faith in the immanent, rather than the transcendent: in the possibility held within each consciousness, that is its own sacredness, and which reflects or reveals the sacredness of both the animate and inanimate world.
In its realisation of the sacred, Vertical Road reminded me strongly of Bangarra's Of Earth and Sky, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. And also, in the beautiful tact of its expressing what cannot be expressed, of Bill Viola's Fire Woman and Tristran's Ascension, which I saw the night before, arriving at a little church in Parkville on a wet Monday night to find other devotees clustering in the porch, as if we were all members of a secret cult. The only proper response to any of these works is, in fact, a poem: but for the moment, these words will have to do.
Pictures: Vertical Road by Akram Khan. Photos: Carla Gottgens
Vertical Road, directed and choreographed by Akram Khan, composed by Nitin Sawhney. Lighting Design by Jesper Kongshaug, costumes by Kimie Nakano, set conceived by Akram Khan, Jesper Kongshaug and Kimie Nakano. Material devised & performed by Eulalia Ayguade Farro, Konstadina Efthymiadou, Salah El Brogy, Ahmed Khemis,Young Jin Kim, Yen-Ching Lin, Andrej Petrovic and Paul Zivkovich. Akram Khan Company, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until October 23.