Akram Khan Company, Sadler's Wells, London
Stephen Petronio Company, Barbican Theatre, London

Fervour, or hokum? With Khan, it can be hard to keep the faith

Audiences will go a long way to accommodate the vagaries of an artist they admire. Critics will too, believe it or not.

The rocketing career of Akram Khan hasn't been without the odd engine stutter, but his fans, and the dance press, have stuck with him.

It's 10 years now since he launched his company, originally as a vehicle for his own dancing, but latterly a collective of other talents to present his work. And perhaps if Khan had lent his personal wow-factor to the latest, Vertical Road, my scepticism might just have yielded. But, dear me no. By the end it had set like cement.

This time, for the first time, Khan has forsaken any notion of narrative for one big mystical fuzz. According to a printed note from Khan, the piece is a group meditation, an exploration of the "vertical" (ie spiritual) path as opposed to the "horizontal", goal-driven one of modern living. How he goes about expressing this dichotomy is sometimes arresting, and even spectacular, but ultimately deeply unaffecting. It would seem that one person's spiritual fervour is another's histrionic overload. And this looked, to me, like hokum.

The long robes, solemn processionals and self-flagellation (emitting talcum-powder clouds on each thwack to remind us that man is but dust), are kung fu soap-opera territory. There is much communal swaying, crouching and crawling as well as dervish whirling (inset below) and rolling across the floor at speed. Nitin Sawhney's recorded score is full of doomy drumbeats and slow-moving chords that reach thundering climaxes. Dancers with a great deal of wild hair shake it all about. There's a seduction, a fight, and a stand-off between two muscular guys in which they appear to strike each other with invisible zappers. I seem to remember Luke Skywalker had one of those.

Yet the impulse to giggle seems ungracious when the thing is sincerely meant. The full house at Sadler's Wells was at least respectful, but feeble applause said it all.

There was more disappointment at the Barbican where another of contemporary dance's favourite sons, New Yorker Stephen Petronio, kicked off Dance Umbrella. The poster, and the flyer, had promised great excitements: writhing bodies, spraying water, wet skin ....

Instead, I Drink the Air Before Me – words lifted from a line of Ariel's in The Tempest – was a polite display of classical-lite on a clean, dry stage. Sure, there are flurries of beauty, but not enough of them to sustain what feels a long haul. Like Khan, Petronio now removes himself from the action, and on this occasion had dressed up in waders and oilskins to stride about the stage muttering into a Captain Ahab beard. What at first seems a lively prank soon turns sour, and you're glad when this hoary bore shins up the side of the proscenium and shuts up.

The real treat turns out to be the music, performed on stage by its composer Nico Muhly with a small band and a schoolgirls' choir. Here were all the sea pictures you could wish for: glowering fog-soundings from the trombone, glittery sprays of Ravelian piano, and the silvery lure of the sirens' call, punctuated magically by handbells.

Akram Khan Co: Brighton Dome (01273 709709) 28 Oct, then touring. Dance Umbrella runs to 30 Oct

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