Akram Khan’s choreographic process in relation to ‘Creature’, a collaboration with the English National Ballet.

Photo: YouTube  | English National Ballet

Creature is Khan’s latest choreographic work, and third collaboration with the English National Ballet (ENB). Originally set to premiere in April 2020, it has been rescheduled to November due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pre-lock down, the ENB live streamed a masterclass via their YouTube channel, inviting audiences to observe a live rehearsal with the principle dancers (Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi) led by repetiteur Mavin Khoo, and explore Khan’s choreographic process in detail during the Q&A session. The information shared in this masterclass is vital in understanding Khan’s choreographic and artistic processes, and allows audiences to connect to the intentions of the work. You can watch it here.

The key aspects of his choreographic process and style which I will elaborate on include:

  • The research process;
  • ‘Playtime’ and improvisation;
  • The importance of storytelling and portraying honest intentions;
  • The collaborative process.

Best described by the English National Ballet themselves…

Creature is an unearthly tale of exploitation and human frontiers inspired by Georg Büchner’s expressionist classic Woyzeck, with shadows of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Drawing on themes of abandonment, isolation and the fragility of the mind, Creature is the tale of an outsider and the search for belonging.”

English National Ballet

Akram Khan typically spends 2 years on the process of researching and discovering what the work will be, until producing almost a draft copy of the work. In this case, the stimulus is a book, which itself is written as fragments of scenarios and is not a total script. This allowed Khan to take it to a new place – in this case, he doesn’t just focus on the classic Frankenstein stories but twists it to consider human nature and relationships. In the masterclass we see the creature himself (Jeffrey Cirio), an experiment specimen, explore the room in a child-like and animalistic manner. He plays with gravity and the physics of movement as the cleaner (Erina Takahashi) is equally curious, though also frightened of him.

Explained in the Q&A, Mavin Khoo mentions the development phase where Khan created and developed movement material on random dancers, before transferring the material onto the English National Ballet cast. The manner of creation is very different for Khan when working for a large ballet company such as ENB because everything is so structured, rightfully so, to manage the large cast. When working with his own, much smaller, company Khan can spend more time on ‘playtime’ and improvisation, whereas with the ENB pre-planning and time management is very specific. However, this does not mean that Khan abandons his usual style of working; Creature was developed in the studio with an emphasis on coaching, providing the principle dancers time to embody their characters and embody the movement language to make it honest. (More on this later.) It is also important to note that none of Khan’s works are ever ‘ready’ for the stage. Khan treats the each performance as another research stage, which is highly unique. This means that none of his performances are created to be performed exactly the same time and time again – there is a process of observing audiences reactions as well as allowing the dancers small chances to improvise on stage, to do what feels natural and honest in the moment. However, these small changes made on stage do not get set into the choreography either, as trying to recreate a moment past is dishonest. (I think you can tell that honesty is a real key factor to his rehearsal process!) Furthermore, he must be sensitive to the fact that the manner of coaching has to be diverse because everyone’s approach to dance is very different, so it can take longer for the ENB dancers to feel comfortable with his idiosyncratic style. Nicky Henshall is a repetiteur (dance coach) who played a key part in translating Khan’s movement material for the ballet body during the process of Creature. Her role was to listen to Khan’s feedback to the ensemble and help them to understand and implement the qualities that he asked for. Often, this meant that Nicky could work with the ensemble whilst Khan could work with the principle dancers, allowing their rehearsals to be more productive and time-efficient.

Honesty. Realism. Intention. The 3 key things Khan looks for when rehearsing his work, which he passes down to his repetiteur, Mavin Khoo. Observing the live masterclass is truly beautiful, and offers a real insight into a professional company rehearsal. What stood out the most is when Khoo told the dancers to “mark” the pas de deux at the start of the class, and they skipped lifts and some travelling phrases, but each moment was still performed with intention and passion. During rehearsal, his feedback really focused on small details which can portray so much, e.g. the way her walk needed to have more weight to emit life, the way the creature needed to fully let his body fall into gravity as he explored the physics of the table, the way her arms needed to be linear rather than curved when reaching upwards because curved can portray romanticism and she needed to portray that she was reaching to the stars. Khoo explained that Khan likes to work with an inner script which instigates what happens – so each movement was saying something without words and it had to be clear in every gesture, every facial expression. Timing was important too, as the dancers had to work off each others emotions in an honest and realistic amount of time. This clear focus in storytelling is characteristic of Khan’s works, which stems from his roots in Kathak, an Indian classical style of dance. His style certainly is more about being rather than showing – the opposite to classical dance, and so it is really important to him that all of his dancers think of dance as a calling, rather than a job. His dancers must all surrender to the deeper, complex elements of his works and embody the full complexity of the story and characters. Therefore the choreography must come from an organic place, from the dancers themselves. He achieves this by allowing time for improvisation and discovery in rehearsals. The discovery phase is where the dancers can work on making their own versions of their characters, for example Cirio worked with Khan for three weeks just discovering the creature’s identity and staggered emotions. The relationships between characters are still being discovered even in the performance stage as the dancers observe how they feel in the moment. His dancers must be fully immersed in the process of learning and developing, and so they do have a large collaborative input on the choreography.

Collaboration is a key stylistic feature of Khan, and this work is no exception. Alongside working with the dancers themselves, Khan works with Tim Yip (set designer), Ruth Little (dramaturg), Micheal Hulls (lighting designer) and Vincenzo Lamagna (composer).

Collaboration is very important for Akram, and what happens is Micheal will have notes for me for the dancers, and Ruth will have notes for lighting, and so really, there’s such a sense of respect, I think, as a team, with the clarity that all of this is being led by Akram’s voice… That’s a very special quality that Akram has I think, in terms of being able to lead.

Mavin Khoo

Khan is like a film director, in the sense that he has a vision about how the performance will look as a whole including all the elements, and therefore each element and each collaborator is just as important as the other. During the process of Creature, Nicky Henshall explains that there were times when the dancers did not have the finished piece of music, and times when the music had completely been changed because Vince would watch the rehearsal and realise that it needed to be developed to fit the works intention, and Khan’s overall picture. This is not the first time Khan has taken on such a big role. During the creation of Desh, a solo work, Khan taught the choreography to his rehearsal director, Jose Agudo, so that Khan could step away and watch his solo together with the lights and set design to make director decisions.

Overall his creative process is less than linear, but highly effective in ensuring his works are honest and of high quality. The collaborative process is likely the most important aspect, which does set him aside from many other choreographers in the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain. Creature is currently expected to be premiered at Sadler’s Wells theatre from the 11th-15th November 2020.


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