Review: At Last, Akram Khan’s Apocalyptic Creature Comes to the Harris Theater

Creature, the English National Ballet’s new work by the brilliant choreographer Akram Khan, finally made it to the stage and audiences this week after being waylaid by the pandemic twice. Opening night was not without glitches: the sound failed causing us to see the mysterious opening scene three times but this apocalyptic epic was worth the wait. The Harris Theater, which served as a production partner to get this international collaboration to fruition, created a wonderful site-specific exhibition on one of the floors of the lobby to provide enriching context and thoughtful backstory to the ballet.  The entire night, from lining up to show vaccine cards, to seeing the exhibition, to witnessing the ballet, became a powerful immersive experience.

Creature is a story ballet that appears to mash up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and George Buchner’s Woyzeck—and for those of us who have become over-sensitized the last few months, it appears also to give a nod to the film Don’t Look Up and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The apocalypse seems near at hand, and people are not very nice to each other.

This is not an evening for the faint of heart or for those seeking light entertainment. The plot places us in a desolate and decaying Arctic research station where a military group lead by a Captain, danced by Henry Dowde, seems to be utilizing the Creature, danced by Jeffrey Cirio, in experiments in survival in harsh conditions.  There is a severe looking Doctor danced by Stina Quagebeur who examines and tests the Creature, and a sweet sympathetic and ever cleaning and mopping caregiver Marie, danced by Erina Takahashi.

Jeffrey Cirio as the Creature. Photo © Ambra Vernuccio.

The bigwig Major, imperiously danced by James Streeter, arrives and is impressed by the experiments. He prepares the recruits for a mission.  He also attempts to seduce Marie in a MeToo moment. When she rebuffs him, he murders her, and tosses the Creature who attempts to protect her out into a blizzard. The battalion musters and departs. The Creature returns and repeats the opening dance with a now lifeless Marie as the outpost quickly falls apart. The ending is haunting and tragic and is perhaps a warning to us.

The movement vocabulary Khan employs to tell this story is more modern than balletic—there are no pointe shoes here. There is a kind of winding circularity to many of the phrases, and there is an athletic muscularity in a unison ensemble section where the recruits move as a single organism. The dancing in this show is magnificent. Technically precise, whip sharp and fast, it is not bravura dancing for its own sake but in service of the drama and advancement of the plot. Vincenzo LaMagna’s score, a combination of live orchestra—the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Gavin Sutherland—and electronic sound (ranging from tones to President Nixon congratulating the astronauts for landing on the moon) is a sound collage that creates an emotional foundation for the story.

This is a work that bears multiple viewings and I hope it has a long life in the English National Ballet repertory. If you get a chance to see this wonderful ballet company, don’t miss it! It is a truly marvelous thing to be in a theater again watching dancers perform. The Chicago calendar is chock full of great things in the coming months so spring should fill our lives with beauty.

Creature was presented at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park on February 24-26. For more information and to buy tickets to some of the upcoming performances like Music of the Baroque and Manual Cinema, go to www.HarrisTheaterChicago.org.

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Angela Allyn

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