Manchester Theatre Awards

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James Wilton, inspired by Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’
James Wilton Dance
The Contact Theatre, Manchester
16 May 2017 to 17 May 2017

One might imagine that Leviathan, a dance piece inspired by Herman Melville’s epic tale ‘Moby Dick’, would require a lavish set and bags of props. Yet, at The Contact Theatre, the stage is bare and only Alan Dawson’s sombre lighting sets the ominous atmosphere.

Choreographer James Wilton interprets Melville’s epic less as an allegory of mankind’s confrontation with God or fate and more as a tale of raw, bloody conflict. The quarrel is initially between mankind and nature but broadens to become pure pointless aggression.

 There is often an element of challenge in dance with partners competing with each other. In Leviathan healthy competition is replaced by pointless aggression and the dancing at times seems more like fighting. With aspects of martial arts included and the cast moving at high speed, the choreography has a shockingly violent undercurrent. Cast members leap onstage from the wings on a hope and prayer that someone will catch them. The famous image of mankind evolving, from ape-like primitives to erect civilised man, is replicated as the cast march in a line across the stage, but, once the process is complete, the final evolved version simply turns and kills his ancestors. Even the comradeships of the sailors at sea is aggressive as the cast grasp hands and are bound together twisted in agonising knots that cannot be released despite the violent movement of the dance.

Leviathan is inspired by Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ but the grim first half seems to owe just as much to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like Mr. Kurtz, Wilton’s messianic version of Ahab rules his crew by way of terror- in a stunning sequence being seated on a throne made up of the bodies of his dead crew-mates. Wilton’s Ahab is driven by an all-consuming rage pumping his crippled leg in an obsessive motion.

In an ocean of rage, Sarah Jane Taylor, who plays the titular Leviathan, serves as an island of tranquillity. The sexual symbolism of Ahab being emasculated by a woman is not explored. Rather Sarah Jane Taylor is a powerful representation of the natural world. Her back, bending and undulating in a peristaltic motion, is a perfect representation of the swimming movements of the White Whale.

There are elements of the natural world in the score by Lunatic Soul but in the main it too is rapid and antagonistic. I found the parts of the soundtrack with lyrics distracting but can accept this is likely to be a matter of personal choice. The pulsing rapid pace of the score ensures that even in the second half, when Ahab’s crew seem to embrace the natural world, the brutal mood of the first Act is not forgotten. 

Reviewer: David Cunningham