Spotlight on Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda (2022)

Despite its sumptuous score by Alexander Glazunov, and Marius Petipa’s glorious choreography, the 1898 Raymonda is one of the 19th century classics that has rarely been performed in its entirety by British ballet companies.  Although there is a tradition of staging excerpts from the ballet, generally from the final act wedding celebrations of the eponymous Raymonda, English National Ballet’s announcement of a new full-length production of the ballet came as a surprise to us.  

RAYMONDA ( Act III ) ; Donald MacLeary and Svetlana Beriosova ( as Jean de Brienne and Raymonda ) ; The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House, London, UK ; March 1969 ; Credit: G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Perhaps one of the reasons this ballet has up until now not joined the list of beloved 19th century classics in this country is the vagaries of its plot, which has been described as “foolish” (Anderson 64), “senseless” (Tomalonis, “The Mysteries”), “boring” (Sulcas), and “Devoid of suspense and romantic drama, … a mere pretext for a cornucopia of dancing” (Khadarina, “Mariinsky Ballet”).  While ballets such as Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895) can be perceived as divorced from contemporary life, their narratives and choreography are nonetheless replete with symbolic meanings with their tales of betrayal, remorse and revenge to forgiveness, redemption and renewal.  Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, who commissioned Akram Khan’s 2016 reimagining of Giselle, says “The beauty of these classics, whether it’s Giselle or Swan Lake, is that the core theme is timeless, that even though it was specific to that time, it is still relevant today” (01:35-01:53).  Evidently the same claim cannot be made in the case of Raymonda.

Tamara Rojo leads a Raymonda rehearsal © Laurent Liotardo

Devised by Countess Lydia Pashkova, a society columnist and novelist, the libretto of Raymonda is a tale of mediaeval romance set in Provence at the time of the Fifth Crusade.  The valiant French knight Jean de Brienne, who is betrothed to the Countess Raymonda, slays Abderrakhman, the Saracen rival for Raymonda’s love. From this slight pretext, Pashkova and Petipa created a ballet of three acts made up of multiple tableaux, and famously culminating in the Hungarian style nuptials of Raymonda and Jean de Brienne.  

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL BALLET TOUR ; Raymonda ; Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev ; at the New Victoria Cinema, London, UK ; December 1965 ; Credit : G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Although, as far as we can tell, the character of Raymonda herself is not based on a real historical, both Raymonda’s fiancé, the French Knight Jean de Brienne, and King Andrei II of Hungary, who attends the wedding, are based on historical leaders of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221).  However, as critic Alexandra Tomalonis points out, it’s not entirely clear what either of these Crusaders or Abderrakhman are doing in Provence, so far from the action in the Middle East (“The Mysteries”).  The list of characters attached to the original libretto identifies Raymonda as the “Countess de Doris”, and the action of Acts I and II takes place inside and around the Countess’ castle, before moving to her Fiancé’s castle for the Act III wedding (Pashkova).  No parents are listed, but Raymonda does have an Aunt, the Canoness Sybille, and the House of Doris is protected by a mysterious “White Lady”, despite the fact that the name Raymonda itself means “wise protector” (“Raymonda Origin and Meaning”).  While some of this is quite confusing, we find it interesting that the House of Doris is indisputably depicted as a matriarchal establishment led by women very aware of their responsibilities. 

Where Raymonda’s Aunt and the White Lady are concerned, this notion of responsibility is clearly evident from the start of the ballet.  In the opening scene the Canoness Sybille reprimands Raymonda’s attendants for their indolence, warning them against punishment from the White Lady if they do not heed her words and consequently fail in their duties.  In the second scene the White Lady reveals the impending danger of Abderrakhman’s arrival to Raymonda in a vision.  Of course, far more interesting to us is how the concepts of duty and responsibility manifest themselves in the person of Raymonda herself.

But in a sense, herein lies the problem.  Choosing a life partner is the stuff of 19th century ballet.  Raymonda’s predecessors Giselle (Giselle, 1841), Kitri (Don Quixote, 1869), Nikiya (La Bayadère, 1877) and Aurora (The Sleeping Beauty, 1890) all follow the dictates of their heart.  Admittedly the results are sometimes disastrous, but at least they have made their own choice.  But who chose Jean de Brienne for Raymonda? He is described as her “beloved” (Pashkova 401), and Raymonda is “delighted” at the thought of him (397, 399).  On the other hand, she rejects Abderrakhman “indignantly” (399) and “contemptuously” (400), implying a more intense emotion towards the Saracen, despite, or perhaps because of, his “flaming passion” (Khadarina, “Mariinsky Ballet”), “sensual presence” (Smith) and “seductive power” (“Alexander Glazunov”).  Does Raymonda seriously feel no attraction towards him? It seems to us, the lady doth protest too much.  

Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio in rehearsal for Raymonda © Laurent Liotardo

As we were doing our research on Raymonda, watching performances and re-reading the libretto, we were reminded of dance historian Sally Banes’ discussion of Mikhail Fokine’s The Firebird, a ballet which premiered twelve years after Raymonda, under the aegis of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The way in which Banes interprets the contrast between the two female protagonists of The Firebird strikes a chord with us in connection with the two male protagonists of Raymonda.  

Here is a tale based on Russian folklore in which the hero Prince Ivan forms relationships with two vastly different female characters: the Princess, or Tsarevna, and the Firebird herself.  While Ivan is attracted to both characters, they represent two opposing images of womanhood.  Banes describes the Princess in The Firebird as “demure” (97), “nice” (98), “virginal” (98), and “a ‘true’ Russian maiden, an ideal of racial purity and national superiority” (99).  In stark contrast, she describes the Firebird as the polar opposite: “oriental, sexual, seductive, both powerful and submissive, she is everything desirable the ‘nice’ Russian Tsarevna cannot be” (98).  To us the Firebird seems to fit the mould of the Muslim Abderrakhman, who can be perceived as submissive as well as “oriental, sexual, seductive, … powerful”.  In the original libretto, for example, he suffers “despair” at Raymonda’s rejection of his gifts to her (398); he is unable to focus on the stage entertainment, so “lost in dreams of Raymonda” is he (398).  Dance writer Oksana Khadarina goes further in her review of Konstantin Zverev’s performance of Abderrakhman, who in his “agonizing heartbreak … was as pitiful as he was poignant, inspiring both empathy and regret” (“Elegance & Exuberance”).  An opposing image of manhood is portrayed in the figure of Jean de Brienne.  Olga Makarova has described him as “refined and classical”, and it is perhaps the restraint suggested by these words that has caused the phrase “milquetoast lad” to be used as a description of Raymonda’s fiancé (Dix).  Would Banes have referred to him as “nice”, like the “‘nice’ Russian Tsarevna” from The Firebird, we wonder? It goes without saying that both Prince Ivan and Raymonda favour the safe option for their marriage partners, that is, the racially pure but bland over the “dangerously attractive” (Sulcas).

So we return to our idea of Raymonda’s sense of duty and responsibility being a problem for us.  The patent inevitability of Raymonda’s union with the safe option seems to rob her of personal agency over her own destiny: the lack, or denial, of any attraction towards the incandescent Abderrakhman smacks of docility, even submissiveness.  This lack of agency is exacerbated at the climax of the narrative.  At this point, far from Raymonda being given a choice (even the choice to marry the partner who has presumably been selected for her), King Andrei insists that the two rivals fight a duel.  Khadarina hits the nail on the head: “The winner (Jean de Brienne) gets the fair lady” (“Elegance and Exuberance”).  Raymonda may be a countess, but to all intents and purposes, where finding a life partner is concerned, she is reduced to a mere trophy.

RAYMONDA Act lll ; Galina Samsova ; Choreographed by Petipa / Nureyev ; Music by Glazunov ; Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet ; London, UK ; 1984 ; Credit: G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Despite all these concerns regarding Raymonda’s lack of agency, we cannot but agree with critic Tomalonis’ assessment of the ballet, after she has analysed the anomalies of the libretto in some detail: 

Another way to look at it is that “Raymonda” can be seen as a great gift to us: it’s living dance history. “Raymonda” received its premiere two months before Petipa’s 80th birthday, and everything he knew about ballet and its history is contained in it. (“The Mysteries”)

And here we find another striking connection with Banes’ writing.  In her consideration of female agency Banes shifts the focus away from the narrative and “marriage plot” as she calls it, and onto the stage action.  Let’s look at what she has to say:

The issue of looking at plot in relation to performance has enormous consequences for interpreting representations of women in choreography.  The plot may verbally describe the female character as weak or passive, while the physical prowess of the dancer performing the role may saturate it with agency.  Thus, even dances with misogynist narratives or patriarchal themes tend to depict women as active and vital. (8-9)  

The opportunity to “saturate” the choreography with agency is particularly noticeable in Raymonda.  In his “great gift to us” (Tomalonis, “The Mysteries”), Petipa gave an even greater gift to the creator of the eponymous role, Pierina Legnani, that is, no fewer than five solo variations, suggesting a range of moods, and a complexity and boldness of character belied by the narrative.  So now we’re going to outline these dances to give a sense of the richness and variety of Raymonda’s dances and the way in which they provide a platform for a ballerina to display her “physical prowess”.  For this outline we’ve used the recording of Sergei Vikharev’s 2011 reconstruction of the ballet for La Scala with Olesya Novikova in the ballerina role, in an attempt to reflect as accurately as possible the original choreography.

The variations start with a pizzicato solo involving lots of pointe work—piqués, hops and brushes—mirroring the delicacy and playfulness of the music.  The Scarf Solo (named Fantaisie in the original libretto, and also known as the Harp, Shawl or Veil Solo Variation) is more expansive, incorporating bolder movements, and far-reach leg gestures such as arabesques and developpés, highlighted through the fine articulation of contrasting smaller, subtler movements.  The “Dream Scene” solo is characterised by grand legato movements, such as grands ronds de jambe, and a series of renversés travelling across the stage, followed by a closing section of unexpected speed and vivacity.  Undisguised virtuosity marks the penultimate solo with its pirouettesfouettéspiqués turns en dehors and en dedans, and chaînés, with a magnificent highlight of entrechats quatres sur pointe.  The final, and most famous, variation oozes virtuosity of a different order, in the sophisticated use of the upper body: the lush épaulement, curves and tilts of the torso, and the fluid rotation of the arms as they carve their way through the various pathways of the kinesphere.  

Throughout these dances Raymonda commands the stage, exerting a level of agency denied her by the libretto that bears her name.  And now we turn to a third aspect of Banes’ discussion (8-11), one with which we are very familiar, that we wrote about in our first Giselle post, in fact.  This is the importance of each individual ballerina’s shaping of the choreography, for example, in terms of rhythm, use of space, line, articulation and dynamics.

To illustrate this idea we have selected a few examples that you can check out online.  Two of the Raymondas who caught our eye particularly in the Scarf Variation were Maria Alexandrova and Olga Smirnova of the Bolshoi Ballet.  When reviewing Smirnova’s debut, critic Janet Ward marvelled at the “breathtaking” harmony of her movement, created through a combination of “musicality, exquisite line, elegant bearing, supple back, and beautiful arms”.  This harmony was unmistakable to us in her performance to Glazunov’s harp music, in her accentuation of classical line in her developpésarabesques and attitudes, and her use of the veil to complement the purity of her lines.  On the other hand, Alexandrova seems to be more playful in her approach to the choreography: she gains visible pleasure from swaying and bending her body, rippling and waving her arms to give life to the scarf, sweeping it close to her face and holding it high with her left hand as she bourrées.  Therefore, even through this one single dance, ballerinas are able to make a distinctive impression, telling us something about how they perceive Raymonda as a character.

We have given you examples of Bolshoi ballerinas above because the complete Raymonda hasn’t been performed by a British company since 1964, whereas this Moscow Company has a strong tradition of performing the complete ballet.   Happily, however, there is footage available of two exceptionally influential ballerinas in the realm of British ballet dancing the Act III variation.  They are Sylvie Guillem, and Tamara Rojo.  As in the case of Alexandrova and Smirnova, their individual shaping of the choreography reveals different facets of Raymonda’s persona: while Guillem accentuates Raymonda’s sway over the audience through her expansive use of the kinesphere and impactive phrasing, Rojo creates a sense of mystery and suspense with mesmerising gestures that trace their way through the space more gradually, and keep us guessing when she may deign to bring her movement to a close.

If any of you are still in doubt about the potential power of Raymonda’s choreography, just take a look at the coda to the Grand Pas.  Here the ballerina demonstrates her authority through a succession of commanding retirés passés en arrièretempi, rate of acceleration, rhythm and dynamics vary enormously from dancer to dancer, as do the accompanying port de bras, despite the apparent simplicity of the vocabulary.  The radiant energy with which two of our favourite Raymondas, Altynai Asylumuratova and Maria Alexandrova, take charge of the choreography and fashion it to their desire brings to mind the determination, resilience, vision and zest for life that we associate with some of the most celebrated queens of the 12th and 13th centuries, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Berenguela of Castile (1179-1246) and Tamar of Georgia (1166-1213).  For us, therefore, despite the ballet’s perplexing scenario, Petipa, Glazunov and the ballerinas bringing flesh to the “skeleton” they created (Banes 9) transform Raymonda herself into a person of prowess in body, mind and spirit.

In 2002 Tomalonis asked the question “Can this story be saved?”.  Well, it looks like saved is exactly what it’s going to be.  

Prior to the planned premiere in the autumn of last year, Tamara Rojo, who is mounting the new production, had been conducting research in preparation for her production of Raymonda for no less than four years.  She had researched not only the ballet itself, but also, in a flight of creative imagination, the life of Florence Nightingale, who has inspired the reimagining of the titular protagonist.  

So what do the fictional 13th century French countess, and the 19th century English middle-class founder of modern nursing have in common? Well, perhaps the point is that in order to “save” the narrative, Raymonda needs to be seen through a radical new lens.  There is no doubt that Florence Nightingale was a woman of high intelligence, extraordinary vision and resilience, willing to take risks in her fierce determination to pursue her vocation; “safe option” was undoubtedly not a phrase in her vocabulary.

Rojo has reconceived Raymonda as a young woman who makes the decision to leave her home in England to become a nurse at the frontline of the Crimean war.  Not only is the background of war maintained in this way, but the context facilitates the creation of two contrasting love interests: the English soldier John and the Ottoman Commander Abdur.  This Raymonda is described as a “heroine in command of her own destiny” (“Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda”).  It is her decision to leave home, to become a nurse, and to become a nurse in a danger zone: we assume that she will also make her own decisions when it comes to affairs of the heart …

Tamara Rojo leads a Raymonda rehearsal with Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo

We began this post with a conundrum: a ballet with a sumptuous score, glorious choreography, and a highly problematic plot.  Rojo recognises this conundrum only too well:

Raymonda is a beautiful ballet – extraordinary music, exquisite and intricate choreography – with a female lead who I felt deserved more of a voice, more agency in her own story (“Tamara Rojo’s New”).

Raymonda by English National Ballet © Jason Bell, Creative Direction by Charlotte Wilkinson Studio

We are looking forward to Raymonda finally joining the canon of beloved 19th century classics in this country, with a new identity through which the Raymonda of the narrative and the Raymonda of the choreography are reconciled.

© British Ballet Now & Then


“Alexander Glazunov ‘Raymonda’ (Ballet in three acts)”. UVisitRussia

Alexandrova, Maria. “Maria Alexandrova – Raymonda”. YouTube, uploaded by BalletForever, 23 Jan. 2021,

Anderson, Zoë. The Ballet Lover’s Companion. Yale UP, 2015.

Asylmuratova, Altynai.  “Раймонда фрагменты – Алтынай Асылмуратова”. YouTube, uploaded by Stanislav Belyaevsky & Anastasia Dunets, 19 July 2020,

Banes, Sally. Dancing Women: female bodies on stage. Routledge, 1998. 

Dix, Laurel. “Raymonda an Exercise in Elegance”. SeattleDances, 9 Aug. 2012,

Guillem, Sylvie. “Sylvie Guillem Raymonda”. YouTube, uploaded by braga144 b, 17 Mar. 2020,

Khadarina, Oksana. “Elegance & Exuberance”. Fjord Review, 2 June 2020,

—. “Mariinsky Ballet – Raymonda – Washington”. DanceTabs, 28 Feb. 2016,

Makarova, Olga. “Alexander Glazunov ‘Raymonda’ (Ballet in three acts)”. Ballet and Opera, 2018,  

Pashkova, Lydia Alexandrovna. “Libretto of Raymonda”. A Century of Russian Ballet, edited by Roland John Wiley, Dance Books, 2007, pp. 393-401.

Raymonda. Choreographed by Marius Petipa, reconstructed by Sergei Vikharev, performance by Olesya Novikova, and La Scala Ballet. 1999, Arthaus Musik, 2001. 

“Raymonda Origin and Meaning”. NameBerry, 2021,

Rojo, Tamara. “Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan on this reimagined Giselle”. English National Ballet, 2017,  

—. “Raymonda:Tamara Rojo”. YouTube, uploaded by Kabaiivansko2, 8 July 2014,

“Tamara Rojo’s new Raymonda and ENB in 2020-2021”. Seen and Heard International, 30 Jan. 2020,

“Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda shortlisted for the FEDORA VAN CLEEF & ARPELS Prize for Ballet 2021”. English National Ballet, 2 Feb. 2021,

Smirnova, Olga. “Olga Smirnova – Raymonda Act I”. YouTube, uploaded by BalletForever, 9 Jan. 2021,

Sulcas, Roslyn. “Saracens, Hungarians and Knights who just happen to be in  Provence”. New York Times, 2 Dec. 2008,

Tomalonis, Alexandra. “Can this story be saved?”. Ballet Alert!, 6 Mar. 2002,

—. “The Mysteries of ‘Raymonda’”. Danceviewtimes, 9 Mar. 2016,

Ward, Janet. “Olga Smirnova Debuts in Raymonda at the Bolshoi Ballet”. Bachtrack, 15 Feb. 2016,    

Watching with British Ballet Now and Then: Akram Khan’s Creature

It’s been a long time coming.  After being cancelled in both the spring and the autumn of 2020, Akram Khan’s Creature for English National Ballet has finally arrived on the stage. 

In preparation for watching Creature we have familiarised ourselves with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and wracked our brains for memories of studying Georg Bűchner’s 1837 Woyzeck at university.  To our consternation we have discovered that our image of Frankenstein’s Creature was totally askew, being associated in our minds with the horror genre of literature and film, and consequently with gratuitous savagery and cruelty.  Of course, both of these literary works deal with savagery and cruelty, but the vulnerability and pathos of Frankenstein’s “Monster” is something that had passed us by until now …Having watched the miniseries (Connor, 2004) and the National Theatre’s streaming of Danny Boyle’s 2011 production last year, and subsequently read the novel, our eyes have been opened …

English National Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

As usual, English National Ballet have produced teasers, and videos discussing aspects of the work and preparations for the premiere.   

The extract with Jeffrey Cirio in the Arctic station dancing to Richard Nixon’s voice sends chills down our spine:

Because of what you have done

Because of what you have done

Because of what you have done

Nixon’s words, delivered to the Apollo 11 Astronauts in 1969, were intended as a message of pride and peace: “I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done … it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to earth”.  

But in front of us the movements of Khan’s Creature are spasmodic, fragmented, jittery, oscillating constantly between childlike curiosity and pride, fear and pain.  This Creature is a combination of Frankenstein’s Creature, and Woyeck, the impoverished and degraded military barber who submits himself to medical experiments, such as the indignity and pain of consuming a diet of peas alone, in order to earn some much-needed extra cash.  Juxtaposed to the Creature’s movements Nixon’s triumphant words take on a sinister meaning: “Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world”.  We hear echoes of the repugnant arrogance of Victor Frankenstein and the Doctor in Woyzeck, arrogance that results in such cruel behaviour as to drive the victims of their cruelty to brutal, murderous acts.   

From the 19th century classics to Khan’s own works for English National Ballet, we know the power of group movement: the menace of Jean Coralli’s Wilis in Giselle (1842); the sheer transcendental beauty of “The Kingdom of the Shades” from Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadére; Khan’s human waves of mourning in Dust (2014).  Now we catch glimpses of such power again in the snippets of Creature that we’ve seen: a brigade of soldiers travelling swiftly through the space, consuming it through frequent changes of direction, attacking it through repeated thrusting and pulling movements as if they’re digging, mining the earth, hauling great weights.  Machine-like in their precision and strength.  We discover later the weakness hidden beneath such strength, the extent to which unison can be used to convey conformity—conformity, and fear of being different, of not belonging.

English National Ballet in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

The opening scene of the ballet is dominated by Creature’s solo to Nixon’s words, and over the evening it transpires that this is the key to the whole work. The Soldier Astronauts enter the stage with huge slow-motion steps, pressing their way through the atmosphere to invade the space.  Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” passes through our minds.

Like labourers in a penal colony, they continue with their relentless thrusting and hauling.  At other times they slither, slide and wriggle like animals, or pay obeisance to the Major, the symbol of ultimate control and power in the work.  Like automatons, their movements are frequently fragmented, stiff, constricted.  Fear ensures they seldom step out of line.  Creature suffers torture as the guinea pig of scientific experimentation.  Fear ensures that the soldiers fail to show him the empathy that would make them truly human: they seem to have been robbed of every human emotion save the fear of non-compliance.  We feel the looming presence of Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kafka …  

English National Ballet in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

Bűchner’s Doctor, so full of his own importance, has become a liminal figure in Creature.  In her behaviour the Doctor shows how failure to show empathy is a process of erosion.  Her behaviour towards Marie, Creature’s keeper, and occasionally even towards Creature himself, demonstrates her potential for empathy; but her responses to the Major show that her status is too precarious for her to be able to indulge in such humane sentiments. 

The work is quite desolate where human kindness, feeling or responsibility are concerned. Although there are exceptions.  

English National Ballet’s Victor Prigent and Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Creature performs tender and playful duets with his friend Anders and with Marie—here unison suggesting friendship, mutual understanding and affection, while free flow in the movement and music conveys a rare feeling of joyfulness.  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Like Frankenstein’s Creature, he is eager to learn from Anders and Marie; like Frankenstein’s Creature, he is longing to give as well as to receive affection.

But the abuse of power seeps through the very pores of the work, and the performance moves to a close literally on a different note to those we’ve heard before, as we hear the tones of sacred music accompanying the sight of Creature holding the lifeless body of Marie in his arms.  But he has not killed Marie: unlike his literary predecessors he has killed no one.  He has in fact attempted to protect her from the Major’s sexual assault.  Creature and Marie pay the price for not complying, for being different: she for resisting the advances of the Major, and for daring to show some empathy towards Creature; he for never quite mastering the steps, never quite understanding the patterns to which he is required to adhere.  

As the Soldiers depart from the collapsing research station in search of a new project, new places to conquer, Creature repeats some of his dance from the start of the ballet, only this time in the presence of Marie’s dead body.  He mimics walking forward with a rifle in his hand, as if he is a “forgotten man” from Al Dubin’s “Remember My Forgotten Man”, the extraordinary culmination of Busby Berkely’s Gold Diggers of 1933:

Remember my forgotten man,

You put a rifle in his hand,

You sent him far away,

You shouted “hip-hooray!”,

But look at him today.

Just as this musical number depicts how World War I soldiers were abandoned by the state after they had served their purpose, the climax of Creature depicts the two protagonists abandoned in the disintegrating research hut.  They have served their purpose.   

As Creature dances with Marie’s limp body, we realise that we have already seen this image.  In the first few moments of the work.  We realise that Marie’s rape and murder have both taken place downstage left, where the story began in darkness, save the glow emanating from Marie’s cleaning bucket, a prop that clearly symbolises life and rebirth through its connections with light and water.  The terrifying realisation dawns on us that the cycle of events that have played out over the last two hours are all too likely to repeat themselves …

Over the course of the evening we have heard Nixon’s words repeated, disintegrate into a coughing fit, and become increasingly distorted, until their final incomplete, but telling, iteration uttered by the voice of Andy Serkis, as if he is gasping his final breath … “Because of what I …”.  The prominence of Nixon’s proclamation, combined with the corps de ballet’s conquering of the stage space, and the persistent pointing upwards towards the sky, makes it clear to us that the makers of Creature are concerned not only with “man’s inhumanity to man”.  If space has become part of “man’s world”, the implication is that planet Earth is already “man’s world” and consequently subject to the whims and desires of human beings, no matter what the cost to the future of the world and its population.  The volume and raw insistence of Vincenzo Lamagna’s sound score, matched with synchronised movement, means there is no escape from a visceral response to the stage action.  We are reminded in no uncertain terms that we are all a part of this tale: “We’re all part of climate change. We all contribute to CO2 – we all drive cars, we fly, we all waste food, so we’re all part of it.” (Khan, “Akram Khan: Dancing Creature”).  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

And then there’s the cleaning.  Of course there’s cleaning—we’re in a scientific lab—but the relentless mopping, wiping and scrubbing performed by Marie, Andres and Creature gives us the feeling that we are trying to subjugate our environment, tame it, erase its essence, so that we can exploit it to our heart’s desire.  It reminds us of Norbert Elias’ The Civilising Process (1939).  

The walls are cleaned, the floor is cleaned, but most importantly, the table is cleaned.  The Major mounts the table, shimmering with Olympian ease.  From here he is panoptic master of all he surveys.  But the table is also a world for Creature and Marie to explore together, as they move around it, over and under it, and dance together on its surface.

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Through the course of this tale layers of meaning have carved meandering paths through our minds.  In the final moments the political and personal converge in a potent climax.  Like the words of Nixon, the research hut itself is disintegrating—a message for us all to take more care of our environment—while we witness the unbearable pain of Creature as he holds the corpse of Marie in his arms, his aloneness palpable.  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

We remember Frankenstein’s promise to make a female companion for his creation to assuage the Creature’s devastating loneliness, the promise that he breaks in the most heinous way by tearing her to pieces before even having finished constructing her.  We remember Mary Shelley’s Last Man (1826), a startling prediction of our times.  We realise that our hands have been clenching throughout the evening.

As we leave the theatre our minds are replete to bursting with images.  So many images, it’s impossible to imagine there won’t be plenty for each member of the audience, no matter what their background, experience in ballet or expectations.

The following morning our minds are still jangling.  Akram Khan wants his audience to “… feel a sense of the work; I don’t want you to see sense in the work” (“Free Thinking” 9:38-9:42). 

We have gained a sense of Creature.  We look out of the window at the garden and wonder where exactly we ourselves fit into Creature’s tale.

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Stina Quagebeur in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

We would like to thank our friends Philippa Burrows, Susie Campbell and Paul Doyle for stimulating conversations about Creature, which have undoubtedly found their way into this post.

© British Ballet Now and Then


Creature: The Army (extract)”. English National Ballet, 2021,

Creature: Because of What You Have Done (extract)”. English National Ballet, 2021,

Khan, Akram. “Akram Khan: Dancing Creature”. Interview by Maggie Foyer. Dance ICONS, Sept. 2021,

—. “Free Thinking: Belonging”. Produced by Tim Bano, BBC Sounds, 16 Sept. 2021,