Creature review – Akram Khan struggles with the weight of the world

Sadler’s Wells, London
Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi dazzle for a sharp ENB, but this long-awaited new work is all message, no story

One quality I’ve always admired in Akram Khan is his fearless belief that dance can communicate on any subject. He’s proved it time and again, whether mining the story of his own heritage in Desh, remembering the forgotten Indian soldiers of the first world war in Xenos, looking at class oppression in his reinterpretation of Giselle, or creating a solo for Sylvie Guillem, Techne, that portrayed the development of AI.

Something, however, has gone wrong with Creature, his third work for English National Ballet, much anticipated ever since its postponed premiere in April 2020. Perhaps that delay didn’t help its development: certainly, it has morphed from being a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to mashing up aspects of that story with Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck and then liberally sprinkling the result with apocalyptic concerns about climate change and the future of the planet. Billionaires and the space race are in there somewhere as well.

So it is that we find ourselves in an oppressive wooden shack in the Arctic, designed by Tim Yip to let icy light through its slats and lit by Michael Hulls with frozen gloom, its darkness barely alleviated by harsh overhead lights. Here a Creature (Jeffrey Cirio) is being cruelly tested for his ability to withstand extremes of cold and loneliness as a faceless army prepares to colonise space.

The problem isn’t that the plot is too complicated – even without finding the synopsis in the programme I could follow what was happening. It’s that in wanting to say so much, Khan and his longtime dramaturg, Ruth Little, seem to have forgotten that we need to care about what is happening; the steps must engage an audience, allow it time to feel.

Things aren’t helped by a score by another longtime Khan collaborator, Vincenzo Lamagna, that substitutes a sense of progression with ear-splitting volume and odd collisions (an extract from Richard Nixon’s telephone call to Neil Armstrong after the moon landing; a reworking of Ravel’s Bolero). It redefines relentless by simply powering through.

There are still marvellous things here. Khan fashions wonderful steps by combining his contemporary style with the company’s classical training. His army of warriors march with outstretched legs that curve upwards at the ankle; they stretch and sway with menace and authority. The ENB dancers look sharp and engaged.

Cirio is sensational, blazing round the stage, the scalpel quality of his movement and his profound emotional commitment giving every gesture purpose. But he is working in a void. Other characters are underdeveloped and underused. It’s never clear, for example, whether Stina Quagebeur’s Doctor, purposefully stretching gloves over her hand, is a force for good or evil; Fabian Reimair’s predatory Major has one brutal mode.

Erina Takahashi’s Marie spends most of the action mopping the stage. It’s a criminal waste of so expressive a dancer, but she mines every ounce of her movements for meaning. As she and Cirio dance together, finding tentative joy amid the gloom, you can feel Khan’s choreographic imagination take flight. The rest of the time, it feels constrained by the sheer weight of his arguments.

  • Creature is at Sadler’s Wells, London, until 2 October


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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