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English National Ballet’s Creature

Posted on October 27, 2021

English National Ballets Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

Does anyone understand what happens in Creature, Akram Khan’s new ballet for English National Ballet? I know I wasn’t the only person it confused. On the bus after the performance, my guest said to me, “Well, we know she was raped,” and the woman sitting behind us, a complete stranger, leaned forward and added, “And that’s all we know. Who were those people? What was going on?” 

Of course, choreography doesn’t have to explain itself and if it did we could leave our minds and imagination at home, but I couldn’t make head or tail of what I was watching. The action involved a not quite human man, a timid loving woman – possibly his carer – and various soldiers. One of them danced amicably with the creature, who later stopped responding to orders and started giving them instead. Another soldier raped the woman and, also later, killed her. An encompassing helmet was handed back and forth, as was a necklace.

In the press material emailed to me prior to the performance, I received a cast list, which I noticed was not available at Sadler’s Wells either as a free handout or in the programme. The information I read at home listed the roles and the dancers portraying each one. If I’d held that list in my hand at the theatre, however, it wouldn’t have helped me distinguish who was who. It wasn’t hard to match the Creature and the shy woman, Marie, to the dynamic Jeffrey Cirio and the lovely Erina Takahashi. According to the list – which, remember, the audience didn’t see – the cast also included a Doctor, a Captain, a Major and someone named Andres. Which of those characters was which onstage?

Before the music kicked in, we heard President Nixon congratulating the astronauts moments after the historic first landing on the moon. The recording must have had some purpose in the production, but I never discovered its relevance. It was certainly more engaging than the musical elements of Vincenzo Lamagna’s score, which mixed military brass with space-age electronics and bits of Maurice Ravel’s familiar Bolero. Instantly and continuously deafened, I tried without success to block it out.

What about the dancing? Terrific from every single performer, precise and intensely powerful, though I did wonder whether Takahashi resented using her training and talent to mop floors and scrub tables.

After the fact, I read that Khan took his inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, that the action was set in an Arctic research facility, and that the ballet deals with global warming and “exploitation on the final human frontiers.” That last phrase comes from Khan’s dramaturg, Ruth Little. Her programme essay also quotes Büchner and Elon Musk, which may be less enlightening for the audience than a quick rundown of Shelley’s original characters. Do you think, as many do, that Frankenstein is the monster rather than the doctor who created him?

I’m surprised that Khan kept his thoughts so close to his chest and shared his intentions almost exclusively with his collaborators – he certainly failed to clarify them onstage. I’m surprised too that Tamara Rojo, who has proved herself a canny, sensitive director, didn’t follow the ballet’s development more objectively than he could. Surely she might have intervened on the public’s behalf. 

Left to their own devices, several people told me they wish they had left at the interval. Out of admiration and respect for Khan and the company, I stuck it out hopefully, but it’s disappointing to bring eager anticipation to a performance of a new work and feel like an observer no one expected.

Pictured: Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takashashi in Creature. Photographs by Ambra Vernuccio.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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