Akram Khan’s Creature, his third major piece for English National Ballet, is a shocking introduction to an apocalyptic vision that can hardly be described as a pleasurable evening of dance. Returning to Sadler's Wells after 18 months, he has made some subtle changes since its initial airing. It is compelling, even riveting in places and it provides a platform for some formidable central performances, but it is nevertheless a completely joyless experience. It’s a bit like watching a documentary which elucidates, but is crushingly depressing. This should not put anyone off seeing it, because it is powerful in its message and the dancing is staggeringly good.

Erina Takahashi and Jeffrey Cirio in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

Set in a a dilapidated research station in a remote archipelago in the High Arctic, the creature of the title is being used for an experimental programme. The military are looking to colonise areas where conditions are intolerable and Creature’s (Jeffrey Cirio) endurance is being tested.

Tim Yip’s impressive set is suitably bleak with the stage housed in rotting wooden logs which crumble and fall intermittently. Michael Hulls’ excellent lighting is eerie and cold and the soundscape includes sporadic voiceovers by Andy Serkis, hauntingly repetitive in his utterances. Vincenzo Lamagna, who did such a good job with Khan’s Giselle, has composed something that is very serviceable and atmospheric, but you are unlikely to recall anything tuneful enough to hum while you’re loading the dishwasher. What it does provide, however, is the drive and pace to move the action forward with urgency. The relentless thud, at high volume, is aptly twinned with the earthy, heavy movements of the choreography. Much of the time, these phrases are menacing. At the start of the second act, there is a reference to Ravel’s Boléro, although I have yet to uncover why. And towards the close of the piece there is some relief with a blast of choral music.

Jeffrey Cirio and Sarah Kundi in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

Khan was inspired by both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, but from those early thoughts, he has leapt fervently into his own world and narrative. It starts with a recording of President Nixon’s voice in a message to US astronauts in 1969: “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become part of man’s world”. The words become increasingly distorted with repetition, as the rumblings and groanings of the soundscape kick into gear. Perhaps those words represent a preface to an uncertain future.

Creature has an ally in the form of his keeper, Marie (Erina Takahashi), with whom he is in love. In previous performances, she, along with Creature’s friend, Andres (Victor Prigent), offered the only evidence of compassion. However, at this performance, Captain (Ken Saruhashi), who marshals his soldiers and initially displays all the signs of rampant indoctrination, appeared to soften his harsh exterior. Doctor (Sarah Kundi), who only faintly disguised her disgust at Major (Fabian Reimair) was almost certainly on the cusp of rebellion against the regime. If Act 1 transported us fully into Khan’s dystopian world, by the close of Act 2, we were left shattered by events. It was brutal.

Fabian Reimair, Ken Saruhashi and Sarah Kundi in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

Khan explores a number of themes but the one that resonates most deeply revolves around the Major’s sense of entitlement, of male toxicity. There is no need to elaborate further on what transpires because everything depicted is horrifyingly clear. 

Whether or not Creature appeals to your sensibilities, the performances are worth going to see. In the smaller, named roles, Kundi gave a subtle but solid account of Doctor, wavering in her duties to the regime when evidence of barbarity was irrefutable. Prigent was an empathetic Andres and Saruhashi has managed to develop Captain further since the premiere, giving palpable depth to his character. Takahashi too, has found even greater pathos in her role as Marie, making it impossible to avoid feeling her fear or pain. Reimair was repugnant as the bullying Major. It’s uncomfortable to report how impactful and unpleasant his character is, but Reimair is one of the greatest dance actors of his generation and so cruel and vivid was his portrayal, it makes one recoil at the merest flicker of a memory.

Erina Takahashi and Fabian Reimair in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

If there is one performance that shouldn’t be missed, it is Jeffrey Cirio in the title role. He is currently with Boston Ballet, but returned to ENB as a guest to dance the role which was created for him. He won a well deserved National Dance Award for his performances in 2021 and yet, he has taken it to another level. In one of the most remarkable performances I have seen, he inhabited Creature with such commitment and force, it stayed with me long after the curtain came down. His uncanny ability to convince as a feral, sub-human being and wring our hearts at his mistreatment, provoked an astonishing, visceral reaction. 

Jeffrey Cirio and dancers of English National Ballet in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

You might not feel like dancing in the streets after watching Creature, but it is a profoundly moving piece of dance theatre that invites the viewer to dwell on the performances, to re-examine assumptions about human nature. It may challenge preconceptions about what ballet companies do, but it’s worth the leap of faith and you will see some outstanding dancing.