Jeffrey Cirio in "Creature" by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet: “Creature” by Akhram Khan

The long awaited premiere of Akram Khan’s Creature finally aired for the first time on 23rd September 2021, eighteen months after its proposed scheduling. It has twice had to be postponed due to the pandemic, thus it will come as no surprise that excitement and anticipation were at fever pitch. It is Khan’s third production for English National Ballet, Dust and Giselle having been universally well received. When one considers the incubation period, timetable of rehearsals, initially created in its entirety before last year’s first lockdown, one can understand that it has become a bit of a casserole that has been in the oven too long. Whilst the dancing was superb, particularly from the central characters, it was not without flaws.

Set in a dilapidated Arctic research station, the Creature of the title is being subjected to cruelty and experiments in order to discover how long he can survive extreme cold and isolation. Set ‘in the present, leaning slightly to the future’, Khan has taken his inspiration from Georg Büchner’s play, Woyzek as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s an Orwellian approach where indoctrination is par for the course, but there are lots of messages on offer: climate change, colonisation in space, male violence against women. As one would expect, Khan has approached it with intelligence and a certain fearlessness, but its themes do not offer a glimmer of hope or redemption as his previous works for ENB did. We are immediately drawn into the horror of Creature’s existence, the compassion but palpable fear of his keeper, Marie, and the savage and violent misogyny of Major. The secondary roles of Doctor, Captain and Andres, Creature’s friend, are not explored in any depth and even Marie, is sidelined into doing mostly a cleaning job.

Stina Quagebeur and Jeffrey Cirio ©Ambra Vernuccio

When the curtain, or rather front-drop of a wall of logs, goes up on Tim Yip’s bleak but impressive set and Michael Hulls’ always atmospheric lighting, ENB’s Philharmonic, under the expert guidance of Gavin Sutherland, fought bravely to be heard above Vincent Lamagna’s soundscape. In the first instance, it felt like the third act of Giselle – the rumblings, grindings and noise being so reminiscent of the factory in Khan’s production. Even the intensely innovative choreography of his Giselle, felt like a bit of déjà vu in this context. Lamagna’s score for Giselle was haunting, memorable and moving. His Creature is strangely devoid of melody or even rhythms with the exception of a few phrases of Ravel’s Boléro at the start of the second act, which seemed bizarrely irrelevant to the narrative. Where he does succeed, is that the sheer brutality and volume of the sound, echoing the harshness of the setting in no uncertain terms, makes an undisputed impact – unpleasant though it was.

© Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur and Jeffrey Cirio © Ambra Vernuccio

The most successful aspect of the production is Khan’s ability to get the most out of his committed cast. On opening night, the corps were on fine form. Ken Saruhashi managed to put his mark on Captain; Victor Prigent was a loyal and sincere Andres; Stina Quagebeur was her usual, engaging presence as Doctor and Fabian Reimair, was quite frankly, utterly repellant as Major, in a ghastly display of toxic masculinity. The two central performances, Erina Takahashi as Marie and Jeffrey Cirio as Creature, were spell-binding and devastating in equal measure. Takahashi was heartbreaking, we felt her pain and fear, her confusion spilling over – especially in her duets with Creature. Cirio’s Creature is probably one of the most extraordinary performances I have seen. He gives himself so completely – his lithe, pliable physique, breathtaking technique melding so organically with every cell in his body, and all the time he is on stage he is charged with such a ferocious, feral energy – his performance was a tour de force.

I was privileged to see two alternative casts and, within ten days, the production had already evolved into something that was much less of an assault on the senses. I cannot confirm whether or not the volume had been turned down but Lamagna’s score faired much better. Indeed by performance number three I was looking forward to certain bits (the duets between Creature and Andres, the playful duet with Marie). The choreography in all areas was crisper, more purposeful. The political messages appeared more overtly aligned to what the characters were depicting. After the first night, leaving the theatre was a bit of a relief. The (quite literally) earth shattering noise had served as a distraction. The focus was now very much on the dancers and dancing.

The second performance I saw was populated in the lead roles by younger dancers (though conversely in the corps de ballet, by some senior soloists). Rentaro Nakaaki showed promise as Andres; Henry Dowden was commanding as Captain; Sarah Kundi was a convincing Doctor and James Streeter, as usual, understood exactly what was required of him as Major. Emily Suzuki, still ranked an artist, has already proved she is one to watch. As Marie, she brought her own interpretation, a kind of naïvety to it. The real revelation was Aitor Arrieta in the title role. He could not have been more different from Cirio – displaying incredible vulnerability that brought out the maternal instinct in me and made me want to rush up on stage tell him I would make it all better. It was deeply affecting and wonderful dancing aside, he brought out the pathos in the narrative.

Erina Takahashi and Fabian Reimair © Laurent Liotardo

At a later performance, Emma Hawes as Doctor looked set for more exciting things to come. Noam Durand, still an artist, was given the chance to show his acting and dancing skills as Andres. The wonderful Francesco Gabriele Frola brought his own brand of authority and empathy to Captain and Joseph Caley, with his boyish face, showed he can play the villain superbly when required. Isaac Hernández and Fernanda Oliveira were outstanding in ways unique to their particular interpretations in the lead roles. Oliveira melts like liquid mercury. As fluid in death as she was in life, she somehow seemed boneless draped in the arms of her Creature. Her face expressed the whole gamut of emotions with tender subtlety – her responses, genuinely spontaneous. Hernández too, found previously untapped dramatic resources. As far from noble princes as you can get, it was as if the lid had finally come off the jar and unleashed the untamed version. Astonishing.

Superlative performances all round, I have rather revised my thoughts and misgivings of the first night. I would still like to know why the helmet used to torture Creature didn’t seem to affect Captain in the same way and why wooden doors that act as entrances and exits (to the Arctic landscape?) don’t seem to have a cohesive consistency as to who comes and goes at any given time, but with a certain artistic licence, these are minor issues.

© Laurent Liotardo

Once you’ve recovered from feeling as if you have actually been incarcerated alongside the entire cast in some hideous, dystopian world, the piece actually provokes a lot of discussion. On leaving the theatre, strangers were talking to me in the street – mostly raving about it and expressing a desire to offload their impressions. The woman next to me in the theatre at one matinee, was completely choked up at the end, she felt so moved. I heard people describing it as profound, brilliant, upsetting (and too loud). It’s a bit of a Marmite ballet perhaps (love it or hate it) but one cannot dispute the fact that Khan’s leading roles are a gift/challenge to any dancer wishing to develop as an artist/actor. The performances this week have been nothing short of mesmerising and the mammoth achievement of the dancers should not be diminished.

If Khan can cut and tweak a little, I think this could become one to keep. And it should be noted that at all three performances (two were matinees) the audiences were on its feet, cheering loudly at the end. Something was clearly working.

By Deborah Weiss