English National Ballet: Creature – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Director and Choreographer: Akram Khan

Contains Spoilers

Akram Khan’s new full-length construction for the English National Ballet, Creature was originally conceived as a version of Frankenstein. But in development, his story mutated into something which has the potential to be richer, bringing in elements of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, the unfinished play about a soldier dehumanised by a series of experiments.

The result sees Jeffrey Cirio’s Creature, a man whose origin remains unclear, being held captive in a secret base by a militaristic force. In the ballet’s opening number, Creature begins to awaken in sync with music by Vincenzo Lamagna that samples Richard Nixon’s 1969 telephone conversation with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as the Apollo 11 astronauts stood on the surface of the moon.

One key sentence from that call, “Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world,” is heavily repeated, then shortened to the clause, “Because of what you have done.” The dehumanisation of Creature, it is strongly implied, is a technological marvel – but at a cost.

Creature’s awakening and development from grunting simian to intelligent man sees him mirror and learn from what seem to be the only caring people on the base – his keeper Marie (Erina Takahashi) and, more particularly, menial labourer Andres (Victor Prigent). The growth in Creature’s humanity contrasts with the precision and regimented drills of the soldier, led by Ken Suruhashi’s Captain.

Cirio and Prigent together bring a sorely needed element of fun to proceedings, in a story that is determined to strip away Creature’s humanity. One also gets a far greater sense of Andres’ character through his pas de deux with Creature than we do of Takahashi’s Marie through hers. 

The latter does, though, introduce the possibility of another literary influence inspiring Khan’s story, in that a simian man-child becoming infatuated with the first woman he has known brings with it strong Tarzan vibes.

As Creature is subjected to tests to see how he copes with ever more extreme conditions, the struggle between humanity and military warfare seems to be ripe for exploration. But then Khan derails the show’s potential by introducing the villain of the piece. 

One can tell Fabian Reimair’s Major, the ultimate head honcho of the whole base, is a wrong’un thanks to the opulence of his attire, a beautiful royal blue and gold among everyone else’s greys. A brief scene with Suruhashi tantalises with the prospect of seeing how the imperious Captain becomes obeisant in his superior’s presence, but Khan is more interested in using Marie as the pawn in a power play between Creature and the Major.

For it is clear that the Major is the sort of man who believes that women who are his subordinates must succumb to his basest desires. This is foreshadowed in the first act as Creature, once more mimicking from those around him, becomes too forward with his advances towards Marie.

But it is in Act II where what had been a promising story really begins to unravel. The brightest point sees Creature join the corps de ballet in their drill sequence, initially following but quickly rising until he is leading them.

But alongside that, the character of Andres disappears, and the Major’s interest in Marie ramps up to the point where he first rapes, then murders her.

The comics industry has a name, “fridging”, for underdeveloped female characters whose primary existence is to be murdered for the advancement of the male protagonist’s character trajectory. It’s surprising that a major commission from one of Britain’s premier dance companies reinforces such a damaging, misogynistic trope.

The result is that the conclusion of Creature leaves a highly bitter taste in the mouth that overshadows so much brilliant work by the dancers – Cirio in particular – and a technically polished soundscape, Lamagna combining the richness of the ENB Philharmonic with various electronica to provide a thrilling, pulsating score.

Creature purports to be a morality tale with something to say about the way technology is heading. While it starts with that premise, it unintentionally reveals much more about the way literature, and dance, mistreats women. For all the show’s technical brilliance, is it still possible – or wise – to look past that?

Continues until 2 October 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Intriguing science fiction derailed by misogynistic plotting

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