Though focused on contemporary dance, Akram Khan can’t keep away from the classics. The British-Bangladeshi choreographer first broke into the world of ballet in 2016, when he reimagined Giselle for the English National Ballet. Khan pulled the gauzy Romantic ballet out of its feudal-folk setting and placed it in a sweatshop in the industrial hinterlands. More powerfully still, he held audiences captive with his utterly singular vocabulary. Ballet and kathak (a form of classical Indian dance) are joined in nothing short of alchemy. “It is the world I live in,” Khan says. “I can’t differentiate the two.” Which brings us to Khan’s much awaited Creature, premiering next week at Sadler’s Wells, in London.
This meaty, full-length work, his second for E.N.B., taps two 19th-century classics—Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and Georg Büchner’s 1837 play, Woyzeck. Both feature tortured protagonists who are subject to experiments of human engineering.
In Shelley’s masterpiece, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein is last seen in the icy Arctic. Hence Khan sets Creature in a futuristic Arctic bunker—the last frontier of a toxic earth ravaged by the Anthropocene. “The piece started life with my concerns about climate change,” Khan explains, “and a general sense of feeling powerless.” The monster, now called “Creature,” is a military conscript reduced to a guinea pig, the victim of a medical experiment investigating whether or not humanity can survive the frigid Arctic elements.
Like Büchner’s Woyzeck, the eponymous soldier who mentally dissolves, Khan’s Creature is a by-product of our deference to technological advancement—and the callous abandonment of those left in its wake.
The body of Frankenstein’s monster and the mind of Woyzeck—both fashioned from broken bits and fragments—are Promethean abominations, forged by ambitious men. Mix this sort of character with a brutal polar environment, Khan says, and you get a handy allegory that is “heavy thematically” and “accidentally reflexive of what is happening right now.”
There is another parallel as well. Khan’s genre-bending movement language, a seamless stitching together of Eastern and Western dance traditions, is itself an invention, his very own creature. The choreographer tells us that this new work is “70 to 80 percent contemporary kathak,” versus Giselle, which “was 70 to 80 percent the world of ballet.” In animating his vision, Khan digs into the deepest reservoirs of his own creativity. —Genevieve Curtis
Akram Khan’s Creature premieres September 23 at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, in London