Watching Creature, directed by Asif Kapadia, for New Scientist, 5 March 2023
In an isolated research station, lost amid snow and ice, a highly disciplined team of would-be astronauts are putting an experimental animal through its paces. Will their Creature survive the tests they throw at it? The cold, the isolation, the asphyxia? A punctilious Doctor (Stina Quagebeur) palpates and measures the creature, summons handlers and equipment and calls for urgent aid when it looks as though an experiment has gone too far. She is meticulous, not malevolent, and when the Major in charge tears the creature from its one source of comfort, the station cleaner Marie (Erina Takahashi), and abuses her, the Doctor fears for the whole team.
It’s up to the captain to calm his superior officer down, and goodness knows he tries. Since this is a ballet loosely based on 19th-century dramatist Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck — about the mental deterioration of a soldier so utterly beholden to his commanding officers, he agrees to medical experiments — it’s not likely that things will end well.
Jeffrey Cirio plays the Creature in this unusual project from English National Ballet — a collaboration between choreographer Asif Kapadia and filmmaker Akram Khan, best known for the documentaries Senna (2010) Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019).
It’s a grim fable of human ambition and ruthlessness, superbly performed, and shot in a way that draws the audience fully into the action, capturing moments of private emotion and the subtlest of gestures without losing any of the spectacle of an ensemble piece.
For almost its entire length (the last five minutes are rotten) Creature explores its extreme set-up with tenderness and intelligence, slowly eroding the distinction between a somewhat simian test subject and its hardly less simian handlers. The Creature wants to copy its masters. We don’t have very long to wait, however, before its masters are learning to copy the Creature. Though the hierarchies of this isolated, militaristic society are clear, and the Creature’s expendability is never in doubt, the piece holds out the possibility of real communication here, and even trust, and even love.
And then, out of nowhere, all that subtle, clever, sensitive work gets thrown away. The Captain (Ken Saruhashi), who’s been keeping the Major contained, wanders off into a blizzard for no reason, and the Major (a jaw-droppingly arrogant turn by the dashing Fabian
Reimair) makes merry hell and gets away with whatever he likes.
Creature wants to be an indictment of cruelty, obedience and power, but its central metaphor will not hold. First, astronauts are notoriously disobedient. Second, space agencies are chronically underfunded. Really, only the point about cruelty might stick, and even here, I have my reservations. Do we sacrifice experimental animals to further our research goals? Certainly, though much less than we used to. And even in the bad old days, these creatures were honoured. Look at the statues to the space dog Laika (I know of at least two), or the remains of NASA’s chimp Ham, interred at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. You can argue that these gestures were insufficient, but you can’t say they were empty.
By the end, did Creature leave me impressed? Thrilled? Moved?
Yes, all three. It also left me aggrieved.
Here I was, preparing to sing the praises of a science-fiction ballet about our difficult relationship with other primates, and what I was left with, at the end, was a by-the-numbers glimpse of how horrid people can be.
It may be that expanding human efforts into outer space is a silly idea, but the show’s censoriousness left me cold. A shame, because the dancing — ironically enough — was out of this world.