Jann Parry sees Akram Khan's Creature with English National Ballet
|Company||English National Ballet|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||23 March 2023|
Akram Khan's Creature, revived by English National Ballet for the first time since its delayed premiere in October 2021, has two scenarios: one for the stage and the other on the page. There's even another version, in a recently released film of the production by documentary maker Asif Kapadia.
If you should stream the film, watch ENB's online videos about the making of Creature and read the synopsis for the ballet in the theatre, you might have a chance of following what's happening on stage. You will know that the story is based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novel (a bit) and Georg Buchner's play Woyzeck (a lot). You will know that the action takes place in a research station in the Arctic where a military brigade is preparing to launch themselves into space. They have been experimenting on the creature of the title by exposing him to extremes of cold and isolation. Brainwashed and physically damaged, he has no understanding of the mission his torture is supposed to serve.
Audience members can have no idea either, unless informed in advance by the dramaturg's programme note. Ruth Little, Akram Khan's collaborator, writes that as we use up our planetary resources and climate change gathers pace, humankind is planning to colonise other planets. Scientific curiosity knows no bounds, feels no remorse. So, are the military characters in the ballet preparing a manned rocket launch to Mars, abandoning polluted Earth? How can we tell from what we see on stage? One clue is in the way the cast keep pointing upwards – yet no NASA-like equipment for a space flight is visible.
The stage setting, by designer Tim Yip, is a dilapidated wooden shack that starts falling to pieces at the end of both acts. The only sanitation is a bucket of water. The corps of soldiers wear neat white boiler suits and ballet slippers; a token black helmet offers little protection from (presumably) the Arctic cold, indicated by an occasional billow of smoke from the wings. When Creature is taken outside and dragged back in, almost lifeless, there's no evidence of laboratory research into his condition, other than the posturing of a female doctor. This is not a sci-fi fantasy but a parable of human delusion.
What we see on stage is the disintegration of a being who is not Frankenstein's monster but a man submitted to pointless suffering. Jeffrey Cirio, now back with Boston Ballet, has resumed his created role as a guest artist, galvanising the otherwise baffling ballet. His opening solo tells us who Creature is: a slender athlete – a dancer – whose body is bizarrely co-ordinated and whose mind is fragmented. He hears a crackly recording of President Nixon's telephone message, congratulating the Apollo 11 astronauts who reached the moon in 1969: ‘Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world.' Cirio stands proudly, hand on hip, before being wracked by spasms of pain. Like Giselle in her mad scene, he clutches his head, recalls delicate gestures, runs frantically in circles, limbs jerking in seizures. Khan's graphic choreography reveals that Creature is damaged but not yet broken.
The composer, Vincenzo Lamagna, distorts the recording as the motif of his score until it becomes accusatory. Everything has gone wrong ‘because of what you have done'. Creature is maddened by incomprehension and the overwhelming noise of Lamagna's music, played by ENB's Philharmonic orchestra. Creature and the brigade of would-be astronauts are under the command of a Captain (Ken Saruhashi) who is controlled by a vainglorious Major (Fabian Reimair). The Major appears to be a cult leader, believing in the divinity of his mission to abandon the world for the heavens. He mesmerises his followers into a danced orgy of bonding at the end of Act I, in which they perform a parody of ballet steps, feet obediently landing in fifth position during a sequence of pas de chats.
An emblem of power or protection is a necklace – a Christian rosary, Islamic prayer beads – that is passed between various characters. At one point, the necklace is exchanged between Creature and Marie (Erina Takahashi), the cleaner who is put in charge of him. Like him, she is lowly, despised. So is another character, Andres (Victor Prigent), who spends most of his time cleaning the walls, while Marie mops the floor. Creature isn't kept in isolation because Marie and Andres interact with him. But then both, wanting to belong to the community, reject him.
Here is the nub of the stage scenario that has nothing to do with guilt over climate change. A classic outsider, Creature longs to be accepted by the people around him. He is in love with Marie, who responds at first to his gauche overtures, dancing playfully with him, the mop and a bucket. Their tender pas deux is the finest choreography in the production. But Creature becomes overexcited, Andres summons help, and Creature is beaten down once again.
At the start of Act II, he thinks he's being accepted by the soldiers in a grotesque dance to the strains of Ravel's Bolero. He's being mocked and distracted while the preening Major seduces Marie into believing in the cult's space mission. Creature witnesses her rape and her disgust as she tries to clean herself with water from the bucket. He is ejected into the cold and tormented by the Major when he returns, a gibbering wreck. When Marie refuses the Major's demands to join him and the others on their expedition, he kills her. The ‘astronauts' march out with small kitbags on their backs – surely inadequate for a journey into space. Creature is left behind with Marie's corpse.
Magnificent performer though Cirio is, the finale is all too familiar: silent howls, hauling around the inert body of the female lead (Juliet, Manon), staring into the unknown as the curtain falls, as do chunks of the set. Has the despoiled world come to an end, with damaged Creature the last man on earth? Is Marie the sacrificial victim for mankind's arrogance? The scenarios for stage and page don't join together seamlessly. Khan's Frankenstein fable about a maltreated creature, longing for love and cast out by the human community to which he wants to belong, has little to do with the space-age colonisation of other planets put forward by Ruth Little.
I've come up with yet another scenario: a crazed apocalyptic cult is preparing for the end of the world. This would account for the derelict shed, the lack of scientific equipment, the bonkers behaviour of the Major and his brainwashed followers, who will never travel into space. Creature and Marie are outcast disciples, punished for being heretics. The ballet thus serves as a warning against succumbing to a cult. Whatever the case, it's a caution against overloading a wordless dance form with more weight than it can bear.
Photo album – Akram Khan's Creature
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).