Asif Kapadia directs this filmed version of Akram Khan’s show for the English National Ballet
Dir. Asif Kapadia. UK. 2022. 87mins
In an isolated research bunker deep in the Arctic, a human “creature” is subjected to inhuman experimentation but discovers the transformative power of love. It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi movie — which in a way it is — but Creature is a performance; the latest work from choreographer Akram Khan and the English National Ballet, brought to the screen by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia. Those expecting something along this lines of Kapadia’s previous films, particularly documentaries like Amy, Senna and Diego Maradona will be in for a surprise; this has nothing of the narrative precision of those works, being an exercise in artistic expression rather than dramatic coherency.
An exercise in artistic expression rather than dramatic coherency
Kapadia has been looking to collaborate with Kahn — the award-winning creator of works including ‘Until The Lions’ and ‘DESH’ and a section of the London 2020 Olympic Games opening ceremony — ever since they met on a National Film Theatre panel in 2001. Kapadia brings his keen eye for detail to this production but, while his Oscar-winning presence may tempt some curious viewers, its audience likely remains limited to those with a pre-existing interest in the material. The BFI will be focusing on the event cinema space when it releases Creature in the UK and Ireland in February 2023, following its London Film Festival premiere, and specifically looking to entice fans of Khan, and of dance in general.
Notices for the stage production of Creature, which bowed in London’s Sadlers Wells in September 2021 (having been delayed for 18 months by the Covid pandemic), praised its urgency and beauty, but expressed frustration at the ambiguity of the story. The same can be said for this big-screen version but, while viewers may not appreciate exactly what is going on without the aid of a plot synopsis, they should certainly revel in the skill and craft on display before them.
There is no real dialogue beyond the odd whispered word and occasional computer-delivered fact about outside air temperature and CO2 levels (voiced by Andy Serkis) — and even less in the way of tangible visual information. Oscar-winning Tim Yip’s (for Crouching Tiger…) fluid, military-inspired costumes speak of a hierarchy amongst the workers; from those who spend much of their time scrubbing the plain wooden walls of this dilapidated bunker right up to a top ranking Major (Fabian Reimair), who wears a flowing blue coat and commands respect… and fear.
There are also snippets of a phone conversation between President Nixon and the Apollo 11 astronauts which took place after the 1969 moon landing; these form the basis of an arresting opening sequence in which Creature (Jeffrey Cirio) seemingly awakens and responds physically to this recorded sound. His movements are animalistic, sharp and sinewy, and grow increasingly frantic as the conversation loops and distorts, layering with Vincenzo Lamagna’s insistent score and inventive sound design. The image crackles, his body contorts, his suffering is palpable.
Variations of this moment play out through the film as Creature is subjected to experiments of extreme temperature and isolation, overseen by a Doctor (Stina Quagebeur), crisp and meticulous in her movements, and the self-important Major, cold and threatening in his. Calmer moments come with kindly cleaner Marie (Erina Takahashi), who dares to show the creature some compassion; their shared choreography is tender and smooth, even at times of distress.
Taking inspiration from both Georg Büchner’s 19th century play Woyzeck and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Kahn seemingly wants his creation to similarly be a manifestation of the effects of isolation and cruelty on a soul. He is also, it is suggested, the result of our detruction of the earth; climate change is hinted at with a howling wind and a dead arctic fox, and the repeated image of a rocket ship soaring overhead gives further credence to the idea that escaping terrestrial bounds is the ultimate goal.
It’s a lot to absorb, and none of these ideas gain a real footing, but Creature is not so much about excavating its themes as creating an atmosphere around them. Khan’s choreography is so exquisite, and his dancers so masterful, that it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the piece. Daniel Landin’s camera is fittingly balletic, focusing intently on facial expressions so easily lost on stage before widening out to capture the majesty of the entire company moving as one body. But, amongst them all, it’s Jeffrey Cirio who commands the attention, his visceral performance a physical and psychological feat which brings light and hope to this dystopian world.
Production company: English National Ballet, Little House Productions
International sales: Lisa Leigh, English National Ballet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Uzma Hasan
Concept, choreography, stage direction: Akram Khan
Cinematography: Daniel Landin
Editing: Sylvie Landra
Design/costumes: Tim Yip
Music: Vincenzo Lamagna
Main cast: Jeffrey Cirio, Erina Takahashi, Stina Quagebeur. Ken Suruhashi, Fabian Reimair, Victor Prigent, with the voice of Andy Serkis.