Creature – ballet in two acts to choreography by Akram Khan “inspired by Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and with shadows of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” [co-production with Opera Ballet Vlaanderen; world premiere: 23 September 2021]
Creature – Isaac Hernández / Jeffrey Cirio
Marie – Fernanda Oliveira / Erina Takahashi
Doctor – Emma Hawes / Stina Quagebeur
Captain – Francesco Gabriele Frola / Ken Saruhashi
Major – Joseph Caley / Fabian Reimair
Andres – Noam Durand / Victor Prigent
Army – Artists of the Company
English National Ballet Philharmonic
Gerry Cornelius / Gavin Sutherland
Direction & Choreography – Akram Khan
Composition & Sound design – Vincenzo Lamagna
Orchestration – James Keane
Visual & Costume design – Tim Yip
Lighting design – Michael Hulls
Two performances: matinee / evening
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 25 September, 2021
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
ENB’s Creature serves as a warning to anybody wishing to repeat a past success. Company Director Tamara Rojo can be forgiven for turning to the winning creative team of Giselle which, since its premiere in 2016, has not failed to impress. However, the lightning bolt of inspiration rarely, if ever, strikes twice, and Creature with choreography by Akram Khan, designs by Tim Yip and music by Vincenzo Lamagna is simply not a patch on its predecessor. The pandemic has delayed the work’s creation on several occasions, but the extra time seems to have muddied the concept rather than seen it refined and clarified.
The narrative is an indigestible one-pot meal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, commentary about climate change, all set in an ill-defined period in what we are told is a dilapidated Arctic military station. Quite. Woyzeck has won out in terms of storyline but Khan and his dramaturg have dispensed with the shocking 1913 original and made it a far more conventional tale of the brutalisation of an innocent woman, Marie, beloved of Creature, a being whose origins and nature are never explained, who thereby becomes collateral damage at her destruction. It makes for unsatisfying narrative and, fatally, gives little to no character development to anyone from the title role downwards.
Khan is always a little opaque in the motivations behind the movements he creates, the detailed hand gestures and use of body shapes often unexplained, but here the audience needs more than he gives to be able to engage with what it is seeing – we do not know who or where these people are, what they are doing and why they are doing it. The result is that what we watch becomes almost abstract in quality which thereby exposes the patchy inventiveness. The role of Creature is given a multiplicity of movement which presents considerable challenges to the interpreter while other parts feel under-drawn, movements repetitive and pedestrian. In a seeming hierarchy of invention, the corps de ballet are given often preposterous choreography which serves no purpose – their grotesque marching is nowhere near as powerful as that in Kurt Jooss’s Expressionist 1932 masterpiece The Green Table. Khan’s treatment of the Romantic ballet Giselle was an object lesson in bringing contemporary ideas and a different movement vocabulary to an established work, with subtle references to the original seamlessly incorporated into the new. Creature needed firmly to establish its own world of movement which it does only fitfully at best.
Lamagna’s score is nowhere near as inventive and astute as that for Giselle, and both he and his orchestrator have gone for an unremitting approach which in itself leads to monotony. Alas, electronic effects have been overlaid with a particularly heavy hand and the Orchestra’s considerable efforts are simply drowned out by waves of volume – forewarned, your critic arrived at the theatre in possession of ear plugs. One of the most notable aspects of the score for Giselle was Lamagna’s intelligent use of Adolphe Adam’s music for the original version; what a deconstruction of Ravel’s Boléro was doing in Act II of Creature was frankly inexplicable. Tim Yip has provided a poor copy of the great wall he designed for Giselle and gives a wooden-slatted square space which has little effect. His costumes seem an afterthought with the poor corps de ballet visibly perspiring into unflattering romper suits.
The role of Creature is, nevertheless, tremendous and both Jeffrey Cirio and Isaac Hernández took every opportunity to shine. Cirio is less human, more a being drafted in by humanity who wish to exploit his ability to withstand low temperatures. He movements possess a quicksilver quality and he portrays a wide-eyed beast, uncomprehending of the tribulations visited upon him; his love for Marie, his ‘keeper’, is that of a trusting animal. Hernández is more human, perhaps closer to the Frankenstein inspiration, and his relationship with his Marie is characterised by a need for love from another person in a world of brutality. Both are valid. Irina Takahashi and Fernanda Oliveira are strong as Marie, portraying a character finding solace in a forbidden being, very much as Elisa Esposito does in the Amphibian Man in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning 2017 film The Shape of Water. Büchner’s Marie would have been a tremendous character to explore, however, Khan’s is merely another female to be put upon, brutalised and destroyed. Other roles are poorly drawn, with little to no motivation; only Victor Prigent’s lively army orderly Andres and Stina Quagebeur’s Doctor stood out by the detailing with which they invested their parts.
The company’s efforts are considerable in performing this confused and confusing work; they work so hard to make it live that it is a pity that, after such a long genesis, Creature remains still-born.