Climate change. The one percent. Patriarchy. Mars. Covid. Isolation. The Me Too Movement. These are just a few of the things that came to mind as I took in the English National Ballet’s performance of Akram Khan’s Creature, a heart pounding evening length work, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The beautifully trained company of dancers, led on this night’s performance by the extraordinarily fit and dynamic mover, Joseph Caley, took the audience on a journey that illustrated how a human (and all of humankind) can be pushed to their physical and psychological limits, all in the name of progress.
The story takes place in a dilapidated former Arctic research station where the Creature has been conscripted by a military brigade into a bold new experimental program. He is being tested for his ability to adapt to extreme cold, isolation and homesickness; vital qualities in mankind’s proposed colonisation of the ‘final frontiers’ on earth and beyond since we’ve destroyed what we had in the name of power and profit. Khan says, “The outcast, the stranger, have been a common theme in my work…In Creature, I am looking further into the areas related to the sense of abandonment, rage and loss.
The music and sound design, composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, combines orchestral music, played with aplomb by members of the Chicago Philharmonic, with excerpts of voice recordings and other soundscapes that matched beautifully with the choreography. The repetition of the phrase, “…heavens have become a part of man’s world…because of what you have done.” was particularly chilling as it relates to the current exploration beyond the moon as we continue to selfishly destroy the planet we currently inhabit. The lighting, designed by Michael Hulls, along with the stark visual design of Tom Yip, added to the piece’s portrayal of abandonment and entrapment.
As the evening unfolded, I tried to follow the narrative as summarized in the program, but after a time I gave that up in favor of paying more attention to the journey of the Creature, the grounded yet light quality of the dancing, and the overall structure of the piece.
Much of the choreography was repeated over and over with brutal intensity and expert synchronization; what better group to dance as soldiers than a corps de ballet? Khan’s background in Indian dance was very apparant and it was intertwined with modern and ballet in a way I’ve not seen before.
There were times the movement of the Creature was animalistic, which was indicative to me of the destruction of our humanity. At other times, the movement of the Creature seemed to desperately try and connect with others, most notably his ‘keeper,’ Marie, but those efforts remained hearthbreakingly unrequited. In the final moments, the Creature is abandoned by the army, so they may go on to trimumphantly conquer new territories on earth and beyond. Marie, his lone companion at the top of the show is dead, at the hands of the Major, and the walls are literally falling down around him. So, in the end, what is all of his suffering and sacrifice for?
Photos are courtesy of Harris Theater for Music and Dance