Jeffrey Cirio and Victor Prigent in “Creature” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

Chaos Within

Akram Khan's “Creature” for English National Ballet

Performance
English National Ballet: “Creature” by Akram Khan
Place
Sadler's Wells, London, UK, October 2, 2021
Words
Sara Veale

A beast mourning the beauty he could never have—this is the fate of Creature, the protagonist in Akram Khan’s new production for English National Ballet, just as it was for Quasimodo, King Kong and the canon’s other brutes before him. An apparatus fashioned to withstand the harsh conditions of some indeterminate final frontier, Creature unites mechanical might and human brainpower, a combo that eventually fells the military operation he was designed to bolster. His keeper Marie is the only person who treats him with compassion, but it’s not enough to save either of them from a grisly end. Once the operation’s violent major realises he can’t possess Marie, even through force, he kills her and commands the troops to abandon the site and its resident android. We close with Creature clasping Marie’s corpse, deserted for eternity.

This monster-unleashed/robot-learns-to-love narrative echoes classic and modern allegories, from Frankenstein to Prometheus to Game of Thrones (witness Creature’s Mountain-like ‘roid rage and, later, the collapse of Tim Yip’s cavernous set á la the fall of King’s Landing). Instead of fusing into their own unique story, though, the show’s references read like pastiche, a patchwork of archetypes and ideas—some hugely relevant in light of climate change and the dawn of AI—that never fully gel. It’s further let down by an absence of character development. We never really find out who any of these figures are or what motivates them.

English National Ballet in “Creature” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

As ever, Khan’s choreography is fuelled by striking, unexpected threads of motion. The ensemble settles into a rhythmic contemporary groove only to surprise us with balletic sissones; later they swerve between feverish folk steps and sharp, exacting port de bras. There’s a distinctly staccato quality here, with sudden pauses and tonal shifts that sometimes demand more than the company seems at home with. The dancers are cast in an uneasy limbo where exactness jostles for position with sentiment. It’s all a little colder than Khan’s other work for ENB, missing, for example, the fury and vulnerability of his five-star take on “Giselle.”

That’s not to say there isn’t bite. Isaac Hernández’s Creature is pin-point in his precision, forcing wild, jolting sequences into eight-counts with an alacrity that appears to bend time. He does a remarkable job of warping his movements just enough to look imitated rather than organic. Crouching, spinning, slinking, Creature learns to wield a gun and fall in step with the brigade. His Hulk-like ascension climaxes in a rip-roaring solo of ram-rod limbs and strobing lights.

English National Ballet in “Creature” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Ambra Vernuccio

The ballet’s best scenes engage the ensemble, dressed in sleek silver that’s equal parts feudal and futuristic. They run Creature through his paces like a dressage horse, right down to the stylish prances and dashes. In one memorable phrase, the women of the cast walk the stage in an imperious strut, pursing their frames like some kind of galactic courtiers; in another, the whole troupe pauses to wave their arms like palm fronds in the breeze. These moments unfold against a teeth-rattling soundtrack that splices orchestral music with industrial clatters and warped recordings, including whispers that sound straight out of hell (imagine the word ‘patterns’ as hissed by Voldemort). It’s OTT on the volume front, whereas Yip’s set design is pitch-perfect, a walled-in proscenium of wooden hoarding. Yawning and claustrophobic at once, it practically demands chaos within.

The ballet drifts along at a pace that belies its machine-like motifs, and still the characterisations feel rushed. Emma Hawes’s Doctor is marshalled out of the picture as fast as she is into it, and I left the theatre unclear about who Francesco Gabriele Frola and Noam Durand were supposed to be. Joseph Caley is suitably icy as the villainous army major, although he’s given little dancing to develop the role; he mainly struts around and creeps on Fernanda Oliveira’s Marie, a dynamic that escalates into a graphic scene of sexual violence.

Oliveira does what she can to brighten the role, but Marie is hard done by in plot and development. Her duets with Creature—which invoke light music, pretty shapes and jumps that reach upwards instead of slamming into the ground—are the only moments when she comes alive, implying that she exists solely to reflect his humanity rather than stake out any of her own. Even her death is eclipsed by Creature’s performative grief. How sad for him, the show says—the biggest letdown of all.

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