In the opening scene of Creature, a new film based on an English National Ballet production at Sadler’s Wells two years ago, a man appears out of nowhere, writhing, squirming, twitching. He is not in agony, but suffering from something possibly worse: bewilderment. When he walks, he loses his footing. It’s a ballet turned upside down; instead of rising to the air in an elegant saute, the dancer flounders uncomfortably on the ground. Creature, as the nameless protagonist is known, has been transplanted to an entirely unfamiliar environment – a polar research station – where he is being subjected to an experiment to test the limits of the human body to endure cold, isolation and homesickness.
The architects of this film were themselves transplanted to an unfamiliar environment when making it. Asif Kapadia, known for directing documentary portraits of Amy Winehouse and Diego Maradona had never even been to see a ballet when he was asked to adapt this one for the cinema. It would also be a first feature film for Creature’s originator, Akram Khan, a choreographer known for injecting a heavy dose of south Asian and contemporary dance into the genteel ballet world. Khan has won an Olivier award and Kapadia an Oscar. Despite their mastery of their disciplines, neither has dared venture too far outside them – until now.
Today, the pair are speaking at the English National Ballet’s home in Canning Town, east London – itself new territory for a ballet company headquartered until recently in upmarket South Kensington. “I didn’t know anything about Creature,” admits Kapadia, who has an unassuming air that belies his Oscar winner status. “I didn’t know what the story was. I had no idea what dance was going to be.” His involvement came right at the end of a reasonably successful London run, having had no role in its original conception. “[The film] was all made inside out and backwards!”
But then something remarkable happened. Watching the show and then being thrown into rehearsals for a filmed version that he was tasked with directing in the space of only 10 days, Kapadia instinctively seemed to understand it. “I don’t know if I get dance,” he says. “But I saw what Akram was doing.” Suddenly, it occurred to him that there was “no difference” between directing dancers and directing actors.
Khan, listening quietly – quite unlike his imposing stage presence – underscores the point. “Both Asif and I are storytellers – in different genres, but we’re storytellers.” The pair had first met more than two decades ago at a Southbank Centre event, “when we were both starting out”, Kapadia says. They were starting out on seemingly similar turf. Kapadia’s directing debut, The Warrior, was a Hindi-language film about a mercenary swordsman in feudal India – the very society whose classical dance traditions, especially kathak, were at the core of Khan’s repertoire as a dancer. Khan’s big break had come when, aged only 13, he was cast in the great stage director Peter Brook’s version of The Mahabharata, and the Akram Khan Company has continued to root around the south Asian canon still so little known to western audiences.
Over the years, there had been emails and conversations between the duo. But the prospect of working together appeared to grow more and more distant as their paths diverged. Kapadia was retreating from drama and into documentaries, and his warts-and-all portraits of celebrated figures from western popular culture seemed a world away from the Indian mythology then inspiring Khan’s work as a dancer and choreographer.
Looking back at Kapadia’s work, one can nevertheless see in it the stirrings of something akin to Creature. There is the allure of physical movement: Maradona’s dancing feet, Winehouse’s heaving pathos. The film that foreshadows Creature the most may well be Senna (2010), Kapadia’s first hit documentary, about the tragic life and death of the Brazilian Formula One great Ayrton Senna, whose body speeds beyond its limits towards its final extinction. The same prospect looms over Creature.
Kapadia had to contend with his own physical limitations while making Creature, mirroring its protagonist’s. “I’ve not got great eyesight,” he confesses by way of an apology for his lifelong absence from the ballet. “So I always struggled with the theatre and live shows – I need closeups.” He has astigmatism, a condition that impairs vision. But it also strangely enhanced Kapadia here – creatively at least – spurring him on to look more closely at the body and its gestures, closing in on the dancers’ pulsating flesh in a way no stage production could ever pull off.
And yet, Creature is as much concerned with the play of ideas as of its dancers’ limbs, charged with political and literary allusions. This is Khan’s doing. As his children grew older – he has two with his wife, the dancer Yuko Inoue – Khan became ever more anxious about climate change. “We grew up knowing that you don’t have to worry about the future; things are getting better,” he reminisces. But this is no longer the case “with the climate crisis and the way the world is going”.
Reading The Great Derangement, a collection of polemical essays by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, Khan was struck by its contention that the arts were falling short in their duty to challenge this crisis. “Once I read that,” says Khan, “I was a bit like: ‘Oh, God, why is nature being separated from fiction? In the old myths, nature has a judgment. If you reap too much from the Earth, nature gods will punish you.” But this has stopped being a theme in modern art, demythologised at just the time when the industrial exploitation of nature starts to endanger the planet.
Khan had also become fascinated with the discourse around space exploration, which seemed to him connected to climate anxiety. He cites the bizarre claims of Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX. “‘Yeah, I’m going to own Mars and we’re going to move there,’” Khan recalls Musk saying. “And I was like: ‘What the fuck? What happens to Earth then?’”
In Creature, what has happened to Earth is its decimation in – we presume – some kind of climate apocalypse, hinted at in dirge-like dance sequences. The research station where Creature is detained at the behest the military may well be humanity’s last surviving outpost. He is being trained to endure extreme conditions in preparation for a space mission. “We were thinking about final frontiers,” Khan says. “The arrogance of humankind, mankind, to think: ‘We’ve already colonised Earth. Now we want to colonise the universe.’”
Born in London in the early 1970s to Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants respectively, Kapadia and Khan are two of the leading British-Asian figures in the arts. The film’s producer, Uzma Hasan, chair of the Bush theatre in west London, is also of Pakistani heritage. And yet one thing the film doesn’t, at face level, appear to be about is anything related to the British-Asian experience – unusual in the world of publicly funded art, where a well-meaning bureaucracy sometimes places undue pressure on artists from minorities to actively represent their backgrounds.
“I often get asked why don’t I do something about my culture,” Khan complains. It’s a strange question to put to him of all people, given that he has done his time in that regard. Much of his work draws from the riches of his Bangladeshi background. His father, like many Bangladeshis in the UK, used to work in a curry house. “My dad’s restaurant was in a place where a lot of the racists used to come and eat and then abuse us,” he says, describing the area of Wimbledon where he grew up and still lives, one street away from his sister and mother.
It was from the latter – an academically gifted woman from an educated family, deeply involved in community activism and the arts – that Khan received his earliest artistic training: music, dance and the storehouse of eastern and western folk narratives. “She literally educated me in all the stories from most of the religions and myths,” Khan remembers. “Those would be our bedtime stories.”
Having fled a bloody civil war in what was then East Pakistan, whose government had sought to repress Bengali identity, Khan’s parents felt a profound need to pass on what they felt had very nearly been extinguished. As Khan puts it with dramatic eloquence: “My body became a museum, a living museum.”
Kapadia’s parents, too, had their experiences of postcolonial trauma, as Muslims who had initially remained in India at the time of its partition in 1947 along religious lines. They eventually settled in Hackney, east London, where Kapadia’s father would work as a postman and his mother as a machinist. “It was painful and they didn’t really want to go back to India and didn’t really want to talk about it,” he says.
It is apparent how much Kapadia and Khan have in common from their upbringings, but not necessarily in south Asian terms. The popular culture of their youth, the 1970s and 80s, was monumental to them. Both cite Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson as influences, not one of whom is a dancer or film-maker – at least not primarily. What the three have in common, though, is the way they each stunned the world with their movement.
Khan, who inherited a literary bent from his mother, has repeatedly utilised the resources of western high culture, too. Some of the characters in Creature were inspired by Woyzeck, the classic 19th-century German drama by Georg Büchner. And the theme of inhumane scientific experimentation with the body recalls Frankenstein. In fact, the film’s Arctic setting owes itself to Mary Shelley’s novel. “We never revealed it, of course,” says Khan, “but the monster leaves human beings and goes off to the Arctic at the end of Frankenstein. So we thought: let our creature start there.”
It goes to show that the imagination has no final frontiers. Two south Asian artists can today make a film that is also a ballet inspired by a play and a novel from 19th-century Europe. Creature imparts a paradoxical lesson: that while the body may have its limits, and the planet too, art is confined by none.
Creature is in UK cinemas from 24 February.