“If there’s a war going on outside it’s because there’s a war going on inside you,” choreographer Akram Khan says via video call from his home in London. “The work I do reflects the way I feel about the world at any one moment.”
The themes in “Creature,” Khan’s new evening-length work for the English National Ballet, which makes its North American premiere at the Harris Theater February 24-26, reveal that Khan is feeling pretty similarly to a lot of us these days: powerless, anxious, isolated and deeply fearful for the future of a world despoiled by hubris and greed.
As the name hints, Khan’s original story takes some inspiration from Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.” “I grew up with Frankenstein and was always intrigued by the creature, especially the sense of feeling alone,” he says. “He just wanted to be loved. The stories of the other, of feeling alone I’ve been drawn to.” But in working with dramaturg Ruth Little, the storyline shifted, adopting ideas from the less-known expressionist play “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner, about a soldier who undergoes tormenting experiments that fracture his mind and lead to tragedy. In Khan’s frozen, near-future setting, the character of the title is not a monster, but a man treated as a less-than-human creature, experimented on in a last-ditch plan by those in power to abandon a planet past hope of repair.
“[‘Woyzeck’] was more how I was feeling when Trump came to power and the world shifted to the right wing—how powerless I felt for the future of the many,” Khan says. “There’s a real anxiety of powerlessness and ‘Woyzeck’ represents just that: he’s not in control of his life and the people around him manipulate him because they’re doing these experiments on him. That became the DNA of the piece.”
The common man manipulated by the powerful into anguish and violence echoes another recent work by Khan—his solo evening-length work “XENOS,” the story of an Indian soldier pressed into service in the British army in World War I. “XENOS” is to be Khan’s final performance onstage and was scheduled to run at the Harris last November, but the set got tied up in pandemic-related shipping delays and the engagement was cancelled.
It was a heartbreaking blow to fans of Khan’s muscular movement language, forged from a blend of the north Indian classical kathak dance he trained in from youth and contemporary movement. Many Chicagoans became familiar with Khan in 2019 when his stunning rendition of classical story ballet “Giselle”—also created for English National Ballet—visited the Harris. For “Giselle,” Khan wove ballet and pointe into his signature style and worked with composer Vincenzo Lamagna on a new musical score. The result was thrilling; anyone in the audience for the acclaimed run will doubtless forever retain the image of the haunted Willis—women who died after being betrayed by their lovers—emerging from the mist, loose hair flowing past their shoulders, grasping long sticks and pounding the stage in time with their bourrées. Khan transformed the corps, traditionally associated with delicacy and tulle, into a fearsome legion that earn the name.
Power is again center stage in “Creature,” though in this case, Khan is occupied with the harms caused by ego—male ego in particular, and how it seems to be pointing humanity toward apocalypse. “People like Elon Musk, these white, super-wealthy men talk about leaving the planet,” he says. “It never ceases to amaze me, the wish to conquer other universes but we’ve given up on our own. The arrogance of mankind, of men, thinking we own the earth.”
Khan tells me “Creature” opens with a sound bite from 1969 of Richard Nixon addressing the Apollo 11 astronauts shortly after they landed on the moon, announcing man’s conquest of the universe: a sentiment that metastasized over the last fifty years from a space race between nations to one between egomaniacal billionaires. But Khan’s creature is not roaming the cosmos, but detained in a bleak bunker in the arctic, the test subject for prototype space suits that would allow at least some of mankind to evacuate an uninhabitable earth. He is tormented physically and psychologically, with a dose of heartbreak from a woman he loves on top.
The title role is danced by Jeffrey Cirio, who played a critical part in the choreographic process. “He is quite rare,” Khan says. “A lot of classical dancers remain classical dancers when they’re doing my work. He’s able to shift into my world—contemporary dance—as fluidly as he’s able to shift into a classical world. I might not have made ‘Creature’ if I didn’t have Jeffrey.”
Khan again collaborated with Lamagna on an original score for “Creature,” one less melodic, more industrial than “Giselle.” Of the soundscape and music Khan says, “Giselle was matriarchal. This is patriarchal. It’s aggressive, it’s power-hungry, it’s grungy, electronic, it’s distorted, it’s fucked-up. It’s the ego of the male… The world we live in, really.”
At the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777. Thursday-Saturday, February 24-26. Tickets at harristheaterchicago.org.