I’ve always been threatened by the sheer length and girth of Moby-Dick.
Enjoy that double entendre while you can, because Leviathan by James Wilton Dance, though based on Herman Meville’s 720-page epic, strips the story down to the barest bones. The space for innuendo, and indeed for complex narrative and intricacy, is so tight as to be almost non-existent. In its place, Leviathan offers us images of mesmerising energy, bold and brash symbolism, and a ferocious single-minded aesthetic that sees the audience thrilled, but the dramaturgy a little soggy.
It opens with a single dancer in white, lying on her back under a spotlight, blowing a spout of water into the air. This is the whale, played by apprentice dancer Hannah Ekholm while the original soloist, Sarah Jane Taylor, recovers from a hand injury. The choreography has apparently been adapted for Ekholm but her performance doesn’t suggest anything but completeness and assurance; fluid and quietly phlegmatic, her whale is an otherworldly creature. This is cleverly signified by the undulating, cyclical nature of the whale’s movements, which are completely at odds with the physicality of the performers playing Ahab and the crew. Ekholm roils and rolls, her limbs leaving afterimages in the air.
Ahab, played by James Wilton himself, dominates the stage. He is a man standing, upright and forceful, when the rest of his crew crouch and leap low. They appear agile and animal, giving Ahab a lion-tamer air, and much of the early interaction between captain and crew has a sort of conversational violence to it, as bodies grapple for weight and balance. One image stands out, as Ahab strides across the stage and the rest of the crew follow him, all of them freezing at descending heights in a distinctly March of Progress snapshot. Ahab turns, the sound of a gunshot rings out, and the crew members collapse to the floor: the captain is in charge here. The striking power of the image does tend to falter a little when set to Lunatic Soul’s rather dictatorially banging, clanging soundtrack – it all feels a bit much – but the strike still just about manages to stand.
Ropes are dragged around the stage to evoke the work of whaling, and are a useful referent for Ahab’s obsession with catching the white whale; as the hunt gains traction and the piece gains momentum, he is often entangled in the ropes, knotting them round himself and then fighting for freedom from his own binds. As Ahab loses himself to his mania, so the crew become less like tamed animals and more like loyal men. There is a beautiful section that sees Wilton linked by hand with one and then several other performers, moodily twisting around one another in a dance of balance and dependency.
Wilton’s aesthetic is a vibrant mixture of breakdance, capoeira and contemporary dance, and for the first half very exciting to watch. There is no faulting the skill of the performers, but by the second half there’s a sense that Wilton is running through the phrasebook of extreme bombast and bravura in place of a more developed visual narrative. Indeed, quite a lot of what is signified scene by scene – Man v Nature, monomania, the interpersonal savagery of closed communities – is represented but not really brought to any sort of conclusion. In the second half, the crew are transformed into the whale (all in white, all mimicking that roiling physicality) and there’s a sort of Revenge of Gaia flavour to the culmination, but it feels like the promise of the first half has been cut loose. Nevertheless, Leviathan remains a real crowd pleaser and a pretty stunning work of athleticism and acrobatics.
Leviathan was on at The Place. Click here for more details.