Digging Deep: Jeffrey Cirio on Dancing the Title Role in Akram Khan’s “Creature”

February 18, 2022

Creature, Akram Khan’s third collaboration with English National Ballet, takes audiences to a crumbling Arctic research station, where the title character has been forced into a new experimental program by the military. They test his mental and physical capacity for adapting to polar temperatures and isolation, in preparation for proposed colonization of far-flung corners of Earth and beyond. Drawing inspiration from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Creature addresses themes of loneliness, abandonment and psychological vulnerability.

Khan created the role of Creature on ENB lead principal Jeffrey Cirio. Here, the dancer shares what the creative process was like ahead of the ballet’s U.S. premiere at Chicago’s Harris Theater February 24–26. —April Deocariza

During a performance, Stina Quagebeur stands behind Jeffrey Cirio, wraps her left arm around his chest and touches the top of his head as he contracts in agony. Quagebeur is dressed in a white dress and skullcap, while Cirio is bare chested and wears gray pants.
With Stina Quagebeur during a performance of Creature. Photo by Ambra Vernuccio, courtesy of ENB

Creature is unlike anything I’ve done before. You have to be selfless, with no ego, to be able to really do this piece. That’s how Akram likes to work; he likes to strip dancers from their ego and what they think they know in order to build them back up. Once he knows where your breaking point is, he knows how far he can push you as an artist. From the beginning, Akram said, “I am going to push you, but you also need to find the humanity and the grief within yourself.” I tried to tap into those moments of grief in my own life—past relationships, family experiences, even battling between happy and sad days during the pandemic. I had to dig deep in order to find myself in this character. 

We did two rounds of research and development with Akram and his team to prepare for Creature. On the first day, we just spoke for six hours. He asked us to do our own research on things that would represent Creature, and he specifically asked me to look at Charlie Chaplin.  He liked the original black-and-white films and how Chaplin really told stories with his facial expressions. He could be comedic, but also tragic, in a way. Akram also wanted to blur the lines between humans and animals, so I looked at a lot of animal videos. We merged it all together through simple trial and error, looking at things like how to move the back, how to articulate the fingers, posture and other idiosyncrasies. 

The beginning solo really sets the tone for the whole hour and 45 minutes that I’m onstage, so we did some task-oriented improvisation during the research and development weeks. For example, if you are washing a floor with your hands, how would you then translate that if something started dripping from the ceiling; how would you catch it into your hand? It was a lot of that kind of play.   

The premiere of Creature was delayed due to the pandemic, but it was crazy for us dancers to see some of the themes of the piece—isolation, grief, connection—come to life during that time. Creature kind of represents the societal issues that we are going through now, so when we came back to the piece, we all had this new perspective that helped us to push and be more realistic onstage. 

Creature takes such stamina, both physically and mentally. I am onstage constantly throughout.  Akram says that when dancers push to their limit, that’s when honesty and true dancing come out. The ballet’s trajectory lends itself to moments where you can fully push yourself, and then have a rest period. It’s like an athlete doing a marathon. I have to continuously tell myself “You have to push through this part,” because the more I do, the more honest my character is. It’s a hard mental process, but it’s very rewarding at the end.