Salah El Brogy left, Andrej Petrovic, Sade Alleyne, Pauline De Laet, Elias… (Spencer Davis )
What a miserable lot we humans are, wallowing in violence, oppression and cruelty. This was the starting point for Akram Khan's latest ensemble dance, "Vertical Road" (2010), which had its West Coast premiere Friday at Royce Hall, presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA.
The "vertical road" was a spiritual journey, a loose depiction of the writings and philosophies of Rumi, a revered 13th century Persian poet and theologian. Khan, an award-winning British choreographer of Bangladeshi descent, began with the most base of human behaviors, setting the stage for a through-line that all could experience as the search for the divine progressed and the dance unreeled. Or, so one presumed.
It turned out to be quite a circular ride, ending as it began with the noise of gurgling water. The choreographic route was repetitive and far less inspirational than Khan's last group piece to be seen locally, "bahok," or his mesmerizing duet with ballerina Sylvie Guillem. His point of view varied little over the course of 70 minutes, making that short span feel endless.
Khan and fellow scenic designers Kimie Nakano (who also did costumes) and Jesper Kongshaug (lighting designer too) do deserve credit for the creation of "Road's" claustrophobic landscape. Using a simple sheer cloth drop and judicious pools of light, they significantly enhanced the piece's moodiness. The cloth suggested a division between earthly cares and grace; when it was dramatically jerked down in the work's final seconds, it was like the announcement of an arrival. The dancers wore draped, beige tunics and trousers, and anointed their bodies by throwing handfuls of white powder.
Khan devised dance phrases of unrelenting harshness. His earthbound humans rocked heavily from side to side, punched the air with closed fists, kicked like fighters and beat their chests. Dancer Salah El Brogy began by butting his head into the curtain — sending ripples skyward — and generally stood apart from the rest. He was at times a master puppeteer, manipulating the others' actions and triggering a slow metamorphosis to enlightenment.
Walking to the downstage right corner, he knocked over a set of giant dominoes. They, like the rippling curtain, were symbols of humanity's interconnectedness. Slowly, one dancer, then another, began to spin, a homage to the Sufi sect that seeks religious ecstasy through music and whirling dance.
This description implies a succession toward a catharsis that was, in fact, barely felt by this viewer. Khan was not helped — was hindered, actually — by composer Nitin Sawhney's irksome and repetitive score.
The uniformly strong movement interpretations from the dancers were the work's one constant. Their commitment kept "Road" on track. But even their excellence could not much improve the view.
Akram Khan Company
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Price: $16 to $43
Contact: (949) 854-4646 or thebarclay.orghttp://thebarclay.org