We tend to think of Asif Kapadia as that documentary guy, which is what happens when a filmmaker's biggest hits (here, 2010's Senna, 2015's Amy and 2019's Diego Maradona) can be traced back to the one specific field. Yet a closer look at this filmography suggests the flexibility our documentary guys and gals now have to demonstrate while waiting for green lights to be given or funding to come through. Over the years, Kapadia has signed his name not just to blue-chip non-fiction but widescreen epics (2001's The Warrior, 2007's Far North), superior streaming series (the late, lamented Mindhunter) and even a conventional Hollywood studio vehicle (2005's little-seen, Sarah Michelle Gellar-headed horror-thriller The Return). Further expanding this oeuvre, Creature invites framing as Kapadia's live concert movie, rocking up at the English National Ballet at some point post-lockdown to chronicle a performance of Akram Khan's dance-based reworking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I warn you now, you may have to squint rather hard to see the Shelley in it, but that's not a failing so much as an indication of the imagination that has been applied to the task in hand. Creature struck me as more obviously another of the 21st century's colonialism narratives: we watch as a log cabin somewhere in the frozen wastes (Shelley's Siberia?), initially inhabited by a taut, shaven-headed male (Jeffrey Cirio) and his beloved (mother? wife?) Marie (Erika Takahashi), comes to be invaded by outside forces, apparently at the behest of Richard Nixon, heard on the soundtrack signing off on the Apollo missions. (For which, in the Musk/Branson era, we automatically read space colonisation.) This new regime involves an obsessive amount of cleaning, whether to mop up the blood spilled in the course of such occupations, or to maintain an illusion of purity, to ensure the entire undertaking remains as pristine to the onlooker as Conrad's mausoleum in the Congo. That's a provisional, maybe far-out reading, but either way you soon realise dance is an especially effective medium for chronicling one of the processes of colonialism: the bringing of bodies into line.
Creature presents as a form of non-fiction, tracking highly trained, much-rehearsed figures in motion, the business of the cinema since the year dot. But it also stands as one of the most sophisticated treatments of dance for the big screen, precisely because its maker realised he had all the tricks of the cinema at his disposal. Kapadia is enough of a student of musicals to know we want to see the whole body moving in a full-length shot, to know these movements were performed for real; but he's also not so much of a traditionalist to turn his nose up at, say, inserts or heightened sound effects - i.e. all the artificial-seeming stuff a director might do in post. (Bottom line: his work on Creature didn't stop the night he left the theatre.) The overall effect has been to make a static performance space come to renewed life, much as Victor Frankenstein channelled lightning through the veins of graverobbed limbs: it's electrifying, and it owes as much to the individual dancers (who are phenomenal to watch close-up) as it does to the way this camera approaches them. The action is largely frontal, as per dance movie norms, but every now and then we get a reverse angle that is both counterintuitive and incredibly striking: from the back of the stage, looking out on what would be the audience, but - thanks to Under the Skin DoP Daniel Landin's expertly ambient lensing - now resembles a gaping void. Similarly, a sudden tilt up as the principals sway on a table reveals stars (or maybe just lights) in the firmament, connecting this earth to the heavens, and the space race with the race to occupy space closer to home. In both cases, we're shown more than initially meets the eye: not just props representing a room on a stage (non-fiction) but a whole hollowed-out world at the centre of a sorry, unsparing universe (fiction, albeit fiction that bears relation to the industrialised world as it stands in 2023). The thrill and triumph of Creature resides in this creation of angles, in Kapadia's pursuit of new lines of sight and thought that mesh organically - and rewardingly - with what Khan was looking at and thinking about. Combining the flexibility of both dancer and documentarist with a scientist's rigour and smarts, the consequences are often breathtaking to behold: a few small, carefully choreographed steps, and yet a giant imaginative leap for dance on film.
Creature is now available to rent via the BFI iPlayer.