Below is a roundup of the critic’s reaction to Akram Khan’s new work for English National Ballet, Creature. Photos are by Dasa Wharton.
Among the overwhelming consensus of 2-star and 3-star reviews for Akram Khan’s new work for English National Ballet, Creature, Zoe Anderson in The Independent gave it a 5-star thumbs up, so let’s start with that:
English National Ballet and Akram Khan make a brilliant match: the ballet company and the contemporary choreographer unlock new qualities in each other. After Khan’s elemental Dust and his intense reworking of Giselle, his potent new Creature takes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a starting point. But it spins into something new, a very individual story of loneliness, space flight, regimentation and loss.
Lindsey Winship for The Guardian tries to explain the plot:
Creature is rich with prescient, pressing and doom-laden ideas, but you have to read the programme to know what they all are. At the centre is the enigmatic Creature (Jeffrey Cirio), the subject of a research programme; there’s Marie (Erina Takahashi), his downtrodden keeper; a cruel, authoritarian Major (Fabian Reimair), and a lemming-like mass of boilersuit-clad soldiers. The synopsis tells us we’re in the remote Arctic – where Shelley’s Frankenstein story ends, incidentally – hinted at by announcements over the tannoy, “Sea level is…”, “Carbon dioxide level is…” and an evident fear of the harsh conditions outside. This small community, perhaps the last on Earth, is enclosed by high wooden walls (by designer Tim Yip, with effective lighting from Michael Hulls), so what we’re watching is people boxed in with each other, the oppressive systems they create and the misery they make. What might the end of life on Earth look like? Not much fun, Khan warns.
Almost all the London critics agreed that the storytelling was badly handled:
Akram Khan’s latest big commission from English National Ballet was already doomed by the weight of its own bombast. What started out as an interesting idea, introducing elements of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, burst its bounds when climate change, the colonisation of space, the isolating effects of Covid and bits of The Handmaid’s Tale got shoved into the bag. No wordless medium can be expected to carry all that, and the narrative result is a mess… (Jenny Gilbert, The Arts Desk).
Though all agreed on the excellence of Jeffrey Cirio‘s performance and those of the other English National Ballet dancers. Gilbert continues:
If this review could have focused solely on the performance of Jeffrey Cirio as the benighted Creature – a laboratory rat being tested for his ability to adapt to the harsh environments of outer space – it would carry five stars. A shape-shifter extraordinaire, Cirio is a choreographer’s dream. Multiple dance styles flicker through his limbs and torso – locking and krumping, leaping and writhing – with astonishing speed, precision and fluidity. And in his two pas de deux with Erina Takahashi (Khan’s best choreography in the piece) he proves a noble partner to her downbeat loveliness.
David Jays, The Sunday Times:
I’m annoyed I spent time puzzling over plot points when so much invited total immersion. The dancers’ bodies are scorchingly eloquent. As the Creature, Jeffrey Cirio is simply scalding: his spine arches with implausible grace, but each of his limbs suggests a separate, juddering life, as if cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster. The mission scientist (steely, care-nibbled Stina Quagebeur) times him cantering in circles, then shoves him into the ice storm. He only just returns alive. What can the body endure? Or the spirit?
It’s in his playfulness that the Creature becomes most human, taking flight in winning duets — a cheeky caper with Victor Prigent’s orderly, uplifting moments with Erina Takahashi’s anxious cleaner. Under the brigade’s cold gaze, she remains downcast with her mop, but then joyously breaks out with Cirio in wide sideways steps, rapid full spins: these exploited drudges relish the rare liberation of taking up space…
Dance stories too rarely emerge fully formed. Few have previews, so, as here, the first public performance is usually also the unforgiving press night. Only then can the creators’ experience first-hand what lands with audiences and what loses them. I hope Khan and his crew get to tinker with Creature, to tighten its bolts and focus its details. We deserve our 21st-century stories.
Alastair Macaulay, alastairmacaulay.com:
My knowledge of Khan’s work has been sporadic and intermittent, but I’m dismayed to find him, in Creature, becoming the lowest common denominator of what the critic Chris Savage-King, in a memorable 1983 essay in Dance Theatre Journal on MacMillan’s Valley of Shadows, called “post-expressionism”. There are odd grace notes Khan adds, like the collective pas de chat danced by the ensemble, which initially add a welcome note of surprise – until Khan repeats and repeats them. There’s a bludgeoning emphasis here that I never noticed in Khan’s early work…
Jeffrey Cirio, a superb performer whom I remember with both Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, plays the Creature with wild intensity. He achieves the paradoxical condition of seeming the freest person onstage, but the choreography still makes him and everyone else fatally limited. And all those silent screams become an image for his own plight: he’s trapped by tedious choreography and can’t get out.
Stefan Kyriazis, Daily Express:
It seems almost impossible to accept. Together, one of the world’s greatest choreographers and one of the world’s most vibrant and exciting ballet companies have created the sublimely poetic Dust and staggeringly awe-inspiring Giselle. Their extraordinary alchemy has given us visual splendours and emotional wonders, piercing concepts and powerful storytelling. Tragically, very little of that is on display in Creature. One of the great nightmarish marvels of literature has simply become a nightmare on stage.
The problems lie both in the excessively self-indulgent intentions and in the pitilessly inaccessible and frequently muddled execution.
The fault for none of this, to be clear, lies with the dancers. The company, from Jeffery’s Cirio’s tour de force as the titular tortured soul to the hard-working corps, do their utmost best with a fatally flawed production.
Bruce Marriott, DanceTabs:
If you like dance as cryptic crossword or enjoy PhD analysis of what is happening on stage, there may be something in Creature for you. Alternatively, you might take the view that the creative team just lost the plot and didn’t really think about the audience, most of whom are out for a night of entertainment.
Graham Watts, Bachtrack:
The factors that elevated Creature were uppermost in two extraordinary performances in the lead roles. Jeffrey Cirio was nothing short of immense in the title role, both emotionally and in the diverse range of his extraordinary technique (his solos were mesmeric) and his chemistry with Erina Takahashi (as Marie) was touchingly effective. Takahashi exposed her character’s vulnerability and love with a tenderness that had undertones of both Giselle and Cinderella (the constant sweeping and mopping helped that allusion). The aforementioned problems with dramaturgy, music and design did nothing to detract from these towering performances.
Teresa Guerriero, Culture Whisper:
The positives first. The production values are very high: Tim Yip’s set, a vast wooden shack denuded of any human comfort, creates a stark, disquieting atmosphere, which builds up to a fearsome finale. Michael Hulls’s lighting design, working mostly with blue hues, expertly evokes the harshness of the Arctic cold, subtly creating fleeting moments of warmth for the brief interactions between the Creature and Marie.
Vincenzo Lamagna’s score and sound design, harsh and brutalist and often very loud, is deeply unpleasant on the ear, but a good fit for its subject, its instrumental elements masterfully executed by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under Gavin Sutherland.
And above all, the dancers of English National Ballet were in tremendous form, the ensemble, an army in white boilersuits, energetic, disciplined and often menacing; the soloists going a long way towards inhabiting their sometimes sketchy roles.
Emma Byrne, Evening Standard:
If Shelley used her gothic horror novel to grapple with the great questions of her time – what it means to be human, nature vs nurture, the limits of scientific knowledge – then Khan uses Creature to address the worries of our own: isolation, climate change, the dangers of consensus (there’s even a nod to the space race currently being fought among megalomaniac billionaires). At times the boldness of his ambitions can dazzle, but too often the evening is marred by hazy plotting and underdeveloped characterisation.
Louise Levene, Financial Times:
Khan has been careful to devise a distinctive movement language for each of his protagonists. There are preening high kicks and struts for the sinister Major (a splendid turn from Fabian Reimair), sinuous spins for Ken Saruhashi’s priest-like Captain, and a set of pulse-checking, follow-my-finger motifs for Stina Quagebeur’s otherwise underwritten Doctor. Meanwhile, downstage left, Marie (Erina Takahashi) forlornly mops the floor. Jeffrey Cirio’s bare-chested Creature dominates every vignette, his wiry, physique making easy work of Khan’s polyglot vocabulary: off-kilter turns and stumbling runs alternating with sudden flashes of classicism.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.