Discord and dissonance breathe an urgent wake-up call for humanity in “Creature,” Akram Khan’s newest work for The English National Ballet (ENB), premiering Thursday-Saturday, February 24-26, at the Harris Theater.
In the beginning of the piece, provided as a trailer on the ENB website, we hear a heartbeat and the voice of Richard Nixon repeating over and over, “The heavens have become a part of man’s world,” and the repetition of, “because of what you have done,” a clear indictment for the dire global predicament “Creature” portrays.
At the center of several themes that drive the two-hour work is a relentless rage against a patriarchal system that perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man. Exemplified by the title character of the Creature, Kahn developed the concept for the role in close collaboration with lead dancer, Jeffrey Cirio, on stage for the entire two-act performance.
Neither fully human nor beast, Creature is a product of mankind’s insatiable hunger for innovation and the abuse of power to achieve it, with no regard for its human cost. It shows the consequences when curiosity and technology are out of balance with preserving earth’s resources, when human knowledge exceeds responsible stewardship of human and planetary resources. It is as much about climate change as about social responsibility.
Speaking about his role on ENB’s website, Cirio said “He’s a complex character, a tortured soul.” As the test subject of a scientific experiment, “Creature” echoes themes of the human ambition to control and exploit nature found in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and Czech author Georg Büchner’s “Woycek.”
Kahan told Cirio he wanted to “blur the lines between human and animal.” To that end, Cirio explored the movement of cats, the great apes, and even Charlie Chaplin’s silent film characters in an effort to capture the complexity of the character and his needs. “He is a tortured soul,” Cirio said. “He doesn’t know touch,” but must discover it in order to connect with people. Marie, whose love for Creature is maternal, feels badly for him, but Creature falls in love with her. Conflict arises between them when he wants her to leave with him for a better place.
In creating “Creature,” Khan wanted to portray “a crisis of culture in the whole world. We’re in a mythology gap right now.” The abuse of power toward women figures strongly in the story. “It’s important to talk about it,” Khan said recently in a panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He references the difficult subjects, saying, “I won’t keep silent.”
The discord in Creature’s relationship with Marie arises from the misconstruing of love by the two protagonists—Creature’s sexual and romantic love and Marie’s maternal love, illustrating the work’s premise that environmental destruction affects our basic humanity. Creature tries to find his true self, but he is thwarted in his efforts by a world that doesn’t value him as an individual. The audience can relate to Creature’s sense of isolation and to the marginalization and exploitation of Marie as a woman.
Khan draws inspiration from an eclectic range of dance genres, paying homage to his background in Kathak dance, his reverence for classical ballet form, and his courage to explore and incorporate modern idioms. All three converge in a movement language that is both unique and passionately compelling.
Music and sound design, created by composer and collaborator Vincenzo Lamagna, play an especially integral part in the storytelling. “What comes first,” Lamagna posits, of his long-standing collaborative relationship with Khan, “the score or the dance?” The composer says: “the score,” but in fact, he concedes, it is both. “He really needs music and rhythm to create,” Lamagna said of Khan. “But sometimes, there is no music—only silence. It’s a very back and forth process” between the two artists. “The music and choreography gel almost intuitively sometimes.”
“Everybody on the core team has a voice in everything,” he said. That collaborative energy accounts for “Creature” evolving as a wholistic work. “I hope the audience will experience a whole piece of work,” he said. “The role of the score is to really hug everything and hold it together.”
The international premiere of “Creature” at the Harris Theater will include live music, performed by the Chicago Philharmonic Society and conducted by ENB Music Director, Gavin Sutherland. “Creature” is co-produced with The English National Ballet and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen; co-producer is Sadlers Wells London, and production partners are the Joan W and Irving B. Harris Theater.
Audience’s are advised that the performance contains flashing lights, loud music, haze effects, and depictions of sexual violence and abuse.
Akram Khan presents Creature, February 24-26 at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. Tickets start at $35 and are available at harristheaterchicago.org/creature or by calling the box office at 312.334.7777. For more details, click the event page below.