Director and Choreographer: Akram Khan
Music and Sound Design: Vincenzo Lamagna
There’s an absurdity to dystopia. As bad as things get in the real world, there’s always a muddling human reality which no heartless Big Brother could ever control. There’s also an absurdity in ballet, with its hierarchies of dancers and precise, beautiful but unnatural movement. Creature takes these absurdities and brings them together to make a dystopian ballet.
Inspired by Frankenstein andWoyzeck (with a dash of The Thing for flavour) Creature is set in the near future. The world is all but uninhabitable and a band of soldiers and scientists hunker down in the Arctic, where they prepare to colonise space. Aiding this mission is a poor soul, forced into being an experimental test subject. Known as Creature, he falls in love with his keeper, Marie who loves him back. Needless to say (given the inspiration) things do not end happily.
It’s unclear whether Creature is human or not. At the beginning, he displays a range of human-like gestures that he repeats, including a salute and a bayonet charge. He also seems to have an imaginary friend, a hand that he positions like a wolf puppet to which he talks to. Later on, in the love duet with Marie, his movements are far more animalistic, often puppy-like. He nuzzles her with his head and appreciates tummy rubs. The dance is a sweet one and the two really connect but it’s the relationship between an owner and a loved pet, which undercuts later attempts at a more human romantic relationship.
Marie herself is a bit of a mystery. Described in the programme as his keeper, she spends most of the first hour mopping. After this production, Sadler’s Wells will have the cleanest stage in London. When the colonisers enter, they are led by a proud, twirling Captain, who frequently offers the others a rosary to kiss. He is later joined by a prouder, even more twirling Major, who inspires great confidence in his troops and is clearly a bad piece of work.
The colonisers themselves enter with a balletic interpretation of a goose-step. Unlike the frequent jerking of Creature, they perform the majority of the traditional ballet movements but do so as automata, a strange and queasy mixture of lithe and stiff, using the unity and cohesion of a ballet company to skewer a group mentality. To signify that space is their goal, they point up a lot. When pleased with the success of their mission they clap, but do so by clapping two fingers against two other fingers, a sight as peculiarly unnerving as the initial balletic goose-step. By the time these space colonisers don their jaunty 60s pulp sci-fi helmets and leave for their spaceship, they feel more alien than human. The rest of the solar system ought to look out.
Creature is performed by Jeffrey Cirio, strikingly topless in the supposed Arctic weather. He begins the piece moving erratically at hard right angles, more like mime than dance. As the story progresses he becomes more animalistic, bounding on all fours, nuzzling his head into his keeper, Marie, and clinging on to her. As the world piles on top of him, he becomes more of a dangerous animal, leaping and pouncing, his fingers splayed as claws. He’s the most removed from typical ballet-like postures and movements, showing his separation from the others. Similarly, Marie, performed by Erina Takahashi, spends much of the performance miming more than she dances, enjoying much of the first half with her mop. The big departure from this is a duet, where Cirio carries her on his shoulders and whirls her round the room in her mop bucket, a moment of physical joy snatched at the last minute.
The set is a warehouse sized log-cabin which falls apart throughout the production, letting in icy beams of light. While the colonisers and their leaders take ownership of the space, Creature and Marie often find themselves tucked into the sides and the corners, where many of the key events take place. It’s only when the colonisers leave the room that the two outsiders can be themselves and take their places centre-stage.
Vincenzo Lamagna’s score is loud, existing in a place where musique concrete-meets-orchestra-meets–blasted eardrums. At one point church bells are cut short and repeated to make a klaxon, at another an air-raid siren is stretched out to create a mournful note. The second act begins with Ravel’s Bolero chugging along in the background while static, boops and beeps try to drown it out. The first piece uses a phone call from Ronald Reagan to the Apollo astronauts, the words being distorted and repeated until his desire to “redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth” seems false. At other points, the welcome voice of Andy Serkis serves as Creature’s fractured mind and he also gets to voice a HAL-esque computer, reporting the deteriorating conditions on Earth.
Creature presents its audience with a bleak future, with a decaying planet whose last resources are controlled by arrogant leaders and their group-thinking followers. Anyone different is a being to be experimented on and anyone showing compassion will be exploited for it. While not the world we live in, it’s convincingly conveyed and there’s a savage strangeness to Creature that will linger.
Runs until 1 April 2023