The creature has finally been released. Akram Khan’s much anticipated third work for English National Ballet was forced into a prolonged confinement due to Covid preventing two earlier planned premieres. Choreographers usually have little time to finish their work ahead of its opening performance but here, I suspect, is a case of too much time and therefore too much tinkering. One doesn’t generally associate Khan with deconstruction but this world premiere leaves one wondering what we might have seen on either of the originally scheduled dates.

Jeffrey Cirio in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

My biggest problem with Creature was the failure of its dramaturgical clarity with an intent that was difficult to discern without reaching for external assistance (ie programme notes). The whole of the over-long work takes place in a single space: a large room made of irregular wooden slats, which appears to represent the last bastion of human life after some catastrophic environmental disaster. The Creature is clearly being tested in some way and for some undefined purpose. There is a cleaner with whom he is clearly in love; a doctor in charge of the experiments; an abusive governor whom I learned from the programme was a Major (why a Major, I wondered?); and an apparent friend. A lot of other people also came and went for no obvious purpose. They were, the programme told me, a brigade but nothing about their motivation or role was clear. The problem of length was in the extensive use of the corps, particularly in the first act, which would have benefited from an editor’s scalpel.

Erina Takahashi and Fabian Reimair in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

Early potential references to Frankenstein and Prometheus had clearly dissolved into the Woyzeck syndrome from which the dehumanising impact of the medical and the military clearly gained their reference. The naming of the romantic interest as Marie is another grounded reference to Georg Büchner’s narrative but the creature is specifically not Woyzeck and the action takes place in the “High Arctic” and not a provincial German town. There is a drum major but the Major in Creature doesn’t look like he plays any drums. 

I have been a huge admirer of Vincenzo Lamagna’s excellent music for Khan’s previous works (notably his outstanding score, orchestrated by Gavin Sutherland, for Akram Khan’s Giselle). The same team has produced an outlandishly eclectic score for Creature, featuring riffs on Ravel, sundry religious laments and compulsive driving rhythms. Why, however, does it need to be played at a level of amplification that is, frankly, often uncomfortable to experience. At one point the reverberations travelled up my leg and into my chest! Less would be more – and would have made so much more impact – if the output was delivered a few decibels lower.

Stina Quagebeur and ENB dancers in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

The insistent force of the music was often reminiscent of that previous score and other material also felt as if it were Khan's Giselle revisited, an image that was reinforced by Tim Yip’s proscenium-filling wall at the opening of the work and Fabian Reimair’s evil Major seemed a more heavily drawn interpretation of the same performer’s Factory Owner. Michael Hulls’ lighting designs brought much-needed emphasis, clarity and visual spectacle to an otherwise static design ethos, although (spoiler alert) the disintegration of the Arctic station once the medical and military had left was an impressive coup de théâtre.

English National Ballet in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s choreographic journey in contemporary ballet has been fascinating to witness and there seems to be a greater emphasis on his kathak roots in this new work, especially in the frequent symbolic use of hand movements in motifs that are regularly repeated but impossible to translate. One impressive solo by Stina Quagebeur (as the Doctor) was a heady blend of references to kathak and contemporary movement. There were often sequences in which the ebb and flow of group movement was transfixing but these were punctuated by lulls in which that magic was lost.  

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.

Jeffrey Cirio in Creature
© Laurent Liotardo

My primary reaction to Creature is that it will be a solid addition to the Khan repertory at ENB and audiences will approve (as it surely did with an ovation at this world premiere).  But, I wish that Covid had not robbed us of what it might have been if the premiere had gone ahead in the spring of 2020. I can't help feeling that the extra time to bring it to fruition has been more of a burden than a blessing.  

***11