James Wilton is certainly ambitious. After graduating from London Contemporary Dance School in 2009 he won an award in 2010 at the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest and then set-up a company to perform and tour his works including some international commissions. He has developed a distinctive style where contemporary dance is blended with martial arts in intense, combative encounters, and has a rather less common interest in narrative. And now, in Leviathan, he has decided to take on Moby-Dick. Yes, you read that correctly. The Herman Melville epic about man versus whale, probably one of the least likely subjects you could imagine adapting for the stage.
To do this, Wilton has at his disposal an empty stage, various ropes, and a cast of six men including himself and one woman. A notice on the doors informs us of “Loud Music”. The soundtrack is by Lunatic Soul, crunching and clanging, but quite as consistently loud or as thumpingly aggressive as you might expect from the warning. What Wilton gives us is no literal narrative but an intense exploration of an unhinging obsession, brutal male bonding and competitiveness. It’s strange but compelling, executed with fierce commitment and attack, with some remarkable images.
He himself is the Ahab figure, and the men of the cast are the crew he recruits and dominates and later more abstract representations of the sea and its creatures. The opening moment gives us the lone female performer, dressed in white, lying on her back on stage and emitting a plume of spray from her mouth in a “There-she-blows” moment. It’s a rare literal reference to the source material. The woman / whale remains in white for the duration, elusive, rolling on and off the stage but never touched. He stalks that woman with sinister intent like a serial killer.
Mostly bearded and initially dressed in grungy greys, the men look a menacing bunch, and you might want to cross the road if you saw them heading your way. There’s a good deal of competitiveness and aggression in their grappling with each other. At times their rough and tumble partnering was reminiscent of the BalletBoyz company. There was one particularly effective sequence which began with a duet for Wilton and one man, where they twist and turn, dive onto the floor and up again but never let go of a wrist or ankle. This built further as a third joined in, leaping onto their shoulders, and then another, and another still all remaining constantly in a chain of physical contact, finally unravelling into a line that then spins around Wilton in the centre.
The company are fearless in their dives to the floor, balances on each other shoulders or when thrown through the air. There are some striking images as the men physically form a throne on which Wilton briefly sits to show his dominance. We also see Wilton tangled in ropes around his leg as if in trapped in the coils of a snake. And later there is a line of the men across the stage in postures from lying, through crouching, to standing – like an illustration of the evolution of man.
The role of the woman here is taken by apprentice Hannah Ekholm (replacing the role’s original creator, Sarah Jane Taylor, because of injury) and the language for her is more calm and smooth, seeming to sail through untroubled waters. There is a repeated image of her, leaning forward, head down, arms open and rounded. In the final section the crew members change into white and group around her, repeating that stance, leaving the Ahab figure isolated.
Leviathan‘s seventy minutes of dancing is split into two parts with an interval. The material may be over extended in parts and the work might be even more impactful if was shorter, tighter and ran without a break. However, that would undeniably be tough on the hard-working cast. Certainly, the blinding lights which are shone directly at the audience at the close of some scenes could do with a rethink. It’s still an intense and compelling experience, received with great enthusiasm by The Place audience. The production has toured the UK extensively this year with just a couple of dates left though an excerpt returns (to The Place) later this month as part of the Fresh sampler programme.