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James Wilton Dance’s Leviathan review at the Place, London – ‘extraordinary’

James Wilton Dance's Leviathan at the Place, London. Photo: Steve Tanner James Wilton Dance's Leviathan at the Place, London. Photo: Steve Tanner
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There is certainly no blubber on James Wilton’s dance work inspired by Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. It opens with a lone female in white, lying face up. Apprentice Hannah Ekholm takes over from soloist Sarah Jane Taylor who suffered a hand injury during the tour and the whale movement has been adapted for her. She copes well, blowing a waterspout and undulating through the air as if in an ocean – very like a whale.

The five men who form a crew under James Wilton’s tormented Ahab roll and compete in a swelling, surging movement that pits strength and elastic musculature against each other. Ahab establishes his authority by sheer force, finally sitting on a throne made up of the remaining men; there is a repeated image of evolution ending with Ahab at the head. Capoeira, martial arts, yoga and acrobatics are all essential parts of Wilton’s dance aesthetic, which shares a similar physical approach with DV8 and Russell Maliphant. The first half is viscerally exciting as the sailors prepare to pursue their (female) quarry.

Shaped by Lunatic Soul’s jittery electronic soundtrack that hammers and clangs throughout, the dance suggests the shuddering machismo of the whalers; their mutual dependence beautifully conveyed in a hand-linked duet that evolves into a trio of savage intricacy and desperate energy.

Ropes are hauled across the stage to suggest the ship and the whaling process. Ahab’s increasing isolation is symbolised by the sailors’ transformation into the whale in the second half. The shift in emphasis undoes the potential for the primal sexual conflict suggested at the beginning and there is a notable loss of power and invention in the second half. But there is fine work here and the dancers are extraordinary, apprentices included.

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James Wilton’s extreme dance company strips Moby-Dick down to its bare bones