Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production shots by Steve Tanner
If you haven’t read Moby Dick, don’t be afraid. James Wilton‘s re-imagining of Hermann Melville’s 720 page epic novel needs no prior knowledge of the story – Captain Ahab’s long and tortuous journey to capture the eponymous great white whale.
Contemporary dance has often struggled to master story-telling without using the classical syntax of gesticulation, pained emotional expressions and extreme en-pointe footwork. So for the James Wilton Dance Company to take on a mammoth literary work and turn it into a piece of contemporary dance, Moby Dick into Leviathan, is a massive gamble.
To adapt something that has a life of its own, crafted and worked into one form (a classic piece of literature in this instance) is a hard task. Recently Mathew Bourne tried to accomplish this through ballet with the cinematic genius, The Red Shoes – originally written and directed by Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1948.
Bourne duly stayed close to the story told in the film but in doing so lost any sort of emotional energy in the portrayal of his characters. Bourne’s dancers took to gesturing wildly, their facial expressions becoming the driving force of the story rather than movement. Dance became secondary to the story and consequently we, as the audience, felt disconnected to the characters. This provokes the question: why make a contemporary dance version if there is an original and definitive? Because great performances should show something that has not been told or visualised before.
Melville’s novel has transfixed many dramatists, most falling foul of the same pitfalls that Bourne’s The Red Shoes did. However James Wilton managed to use dance to strip the story of Moby Dick to its bare bones, the abstract movements creating a rich visual and emotional landscape. The story of Ahab’s arduous adventure has been picked and dissected by Wilton for key themes and ideas. The theme that most resonated was that of man versus nature – the ever growing need to capture and tame the natural world.
Leviathan relinquishes any narrative complexity or linear structure, sparse staging enables bold choreography to capture the intensity and energy of the story without translating every page. Leviathan‘s simplicity reminds me of Orson Welles’s dramatisation of Moby Dick for the stage in 1951. Welles used a minimal set design, the actors becoming the props, much like the dancer’s erratic physicality of the stormy seas in Wilton’s adaptation. The dancers provide the outline of the action, the audience fill in the blanks with their imagination.
The white whale (played by Sarah Jane Taylor) is fluid and stoic, oddly serene, and majestic in the stormy sea. The yoga poses that Taylor forms heightens her composed control over the waters. Whereas Taylor balances, her arms and torso rolling and undulating rhythmically (seemingly to tease Ahab), the captain and his crew constantly hold and use each other’s bodies as ballast, balancing tentatively along the stormy seas, the arms becoming their ship twisting and turning against the waves.
Leviathan‘s bold choreography creates stark imagery that caught my imagination completely. Early on Wilton‘s crew formed the image of the evolution of man from monkey, Neanderthal to the end point of Ahab – the fully formed human male.
This symbolism evoked Ahab’s single-minded determination to capture Moby Dick as he walked stiffly onstage amongst his crew who were fighting brutally. He was focused, chanting and pumping his fist on his chest, his masculinity was controlled rather than his crew who were reduced to sycophantic animal like creatures that crouched and hovered by their leader. Wilton is making a point here: the animals are the human captors whilst the whale commands the seas, navigating her way around the crew. Perhaps, more broadly, he is questioning the evolution of humankind and whether we have chosen the right path.
Throughout Leviathan there is a constant tussle to assert power, Ahab becomes more violent towards his crew, trying to stay in command of something even if it is his own people rather than the whale. This is made more obvious when Ahab sits on a throne made of his crew, their musculature is tamed by their master and leader.
In one early scene ropes are placed around the stage to convey Ahab’s attempts to capture the whale. Lunatic Soul’s powerful heavy rock accompaniment conveyed the bravura of the crew – their aspiration and determination thuds sonically with every drum beat. Later on as Ahab’s obsession and mania reaches breaking point the ropes curl themselves around him instead. As he fights for freedom he is enslaving himself ever more to his psychological obsession for control, which turns inward rather than out towards the whale.
Ahab’s desire for control of the natural world is his ultimate downfall. In the second half of Leviathan the crew wear white, like the whale, instead of khaki and grey like Wilton‘s Ahab. They undulate and ripple across the stage, almost break dancing at points, as they bob and weave through the imaginary sea. They have become Moby Dick and at one point, with Taylor, form the great whale – haunting Ahab whose body hunches and bends as he is tormented by his unreasonable desire to capture her.
To me, the abstract and disjointed movements of the second half represent the frenzied thoughts of Ahab who now can only see and think about the whale. High pitched vocals cut through this scene, the line ‘I condemned myself to solitude’ representing Ahab’s nonsensical quest. The imagery of the whale and crew, as powerful waves pushing down Ahab, alludes to Wilton‘s concept of the unreasonable destruction of our climate which at the end of Leviathan eventually proves fatal to man.
Lunatic Soul’s soundtrack works well, generally. The music itself is fitting, but for me it was marred by a few issues. Firstly it was all blasted out at a uniform volume, whereas I felt many of the sections needed to be quieter – the show would have benefited from some dynamic range, which could have emphasised the more intense moments and prevented the whole from being fatiguing.
Secondly, several of the transitions between tracks were clumsy, making it obvious that the music was a collection and not a whole commissioned for the piece. Finally, I found the presence of vocals sometimes distracted me from the dancing.
However the performances in James Wilton’s Leviathan are faultless, the mix of capoeira, athletic dance and acrobatics are performed with verve and gusto. Overall James Wilton Dance Company has managed to portray the essence of Melville’s tale without being constrained by the story.
Dance in its many forms is celebrated in this production and bring the characters and natural world to life. For anyone who believes dance cannot tell a complex story without words, you are wrong: Leviathan proves dance can be as stirring as theatre.
For more on James Wilton Dance, visit www.jameswiltondance.org.uk
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