Beyond the limits of gravity – Mourad Merzouki’s ‘Vertikal’ with Käfig review

‘Photograph: Laurent Philippe

In his new production ‘Vertikal’, top French choreographer Mourad Merzouki yet again defies all expectations – he pushes past another set of boundaries and explores a whole new dimension: a world (almost) without gravity. The show is a collaboration with vertical dance company Retouramont, who provided the dancers with rope mechanisms, allowing them to achieve apparent weightlessness.

The performance begins with dancers emerging from three enormous rectangular blocks placed at the back of the stage, unattached, but moving so delicately that not so much as a foot brushing the floor can be heard as they backflip and lift each other up and down. After this first sequence come the ropes – one or a few dancers at a time are attached to a rope each, and thus begins the defiance of gravity. Merzouki has the dancers flying, leaping, horizontally, upside-down, spinning on their heads, running up the sides of the rectangular blocks and reaching new heights… He does this so cleverly and subtly, that the performance never tips remotely into circus – you even forget that the ropes are there, all that is visible is a beautiful elevation.

What is possibly even more awe-inspiring than watching the dancers glide through the air is their ability to dance just as lightly without the ropes. They each have such amazing control and are so completely silent on the floor, however high they land from, that it isn’t even disappointing when the ropes aren’t there. These performers appear simply superhuman.

A gripping section where the dancers, unattached, perform complex choreography while holding onto only a few bolts sticking out of the five-meter-high rectangular blocks, really has you sitting on the edge of your seat. The physical and mental strength needed to execute this is astonishing. You are constantly left wondering, “What next?” – it increasingly seems as if anything is possible, yet there are unexpected surprises around every corner.

Photograph: Laurent Philippe

The choreographer very much plays with each dancer’s individual strengths and style, which are incredibly diverse – from break to contemporary – but somehow combine perfectly together.

Obviously incredibly well-rehearsed, the performance is polished to perfection – the timing, particularly, is brilliant. The dancers even breathe unanimously, in symbiosis with the music – the breathing pattern is sometimes slowed right down to achieve a jaw-dropping slow-motion effect.

Photograph: Laurent Philippe

The scenery, which appears deceptively plain at first, is actually one of the stars of the show. Dancers emerge from all sides and from over the top of the rectangular blocks, which are often in motion. This, combined with a clever play on shadows and silhouettes, means that the performance inhabited the whole stage, through a range of depths as well as heights.

An unsurprising standing ovation concluded the show – Mourad Merzouki, as always, has succeeded in creating an utterly original masterpiece.

You can read my interview with two of the performers here. To find out more about Mourad Merzouki, his company Käfig, and the National Choreographic Center of Créteil-Val-de-Marne, click here.

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