James Wilton Dance’s Leviathan aspires to greatness, loosely inspired by one of the Great American Novels of the Nineteenth Century – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In the novel, Captain Ahab becomes obsessed with capturing a white whale, ‘a beast as vast and dangerous as the sea itself, yet serene and beautiful beyond all imagining’. Choreographer/dancer James Wilton takes the idea of one man’s obsession for something beautiful and mysterious and unattainable and pulls in elements of imagery from the source material in a cleverly distilled way.
There are threads of narrative in the construction of this two-act full-length piece of contemporary dance but Leviathan sets itself neatly between the twin pillars of narrative and abstraction. It is constructed with enough action and imagery – and nautical rope – to drive the narrative without wading into using drama or text to ‘tell the story’. The work is divided into chapters, carefully constructed with the diverse and progressive electronic-rock soundtrack by Polish musician Mariusz Duda, recording as Lunatic Soul, which creates an underpinning soundtrack that is in turns ambient and purposefully aggressive.
Choreographing to rock is characteristic of Wilton’s work, as is the finely-modulated aggression of his choreography, which combines extreme but controlled physicality with elements of capoeira, martial arts and intense trust and strength-reliant partnering, which sees dancers hurtling through the air with impressive fearlessness and control. This style works well at capturing the choreography of male violence and man’s animalistic underbelly that characterises Ahab’s relationship with his crew, who are drawn into danger by their captain’s single-mindedness. It works equally well in the second act when all the cast but Wilton himself become the embodiment of the forces of nature – the whale and the sea.
Swirling, liquid, full-bodied movements fall with the softest impact to the floor, creating a real sense of the endlessly shifting and rolling ocean: entrancing and overwhelming Ahab with its fathomable depths. The second half builds smoothly, driven by the music and the consistency of Wilton’s choreography, from lyrical beauty and simplicity and a sense of human failure to a final section of genuine excitement. The insertion of an interval not only breaks up the piece into two manageable halves but marks an actual sea change in Ahab’s mental state.
The whale itself – and the elusive beauty of nature – are represented throughout by Sarah Jayne Taylor, whose muscular fluidity of movement is hypnotic, half in sight, half-illusory. Unobtainable and distant. Wilton himself retains a charismatic and brooding presence through the work, ably supported by Michael Kelland, Joshua Smith, Harland Rust and Samuel Baxter, who bring impressive ability and individuality to the work.
The production benefits from some impressive lighting designs by Alan Dawson, which create a stormy nocturnal atmosphere, and punctuates the action with dazzling full stops.
Leviathan is an ambitious piece of dance from a distinctive choreographer who really knows how to let the body tell a story – and it’s a whale of a tale.