James Wilton: Leviathan


James Wilton’s groundbreaking contemporary dance productions have received international awards and acclaim. Ahead of his latest production, ‘Leviathan’ (featuring at the Barbican Theatre on 21 September), contributor Helen Tope caught up with James to discuss his new work.


Leviathan Online

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An award-winning choreographer and dancer, James Wilton has become an integral part of the British contemporary dance scene since graduating in 2009. James’ first professional work, ‘The Shortest Day’ (2010) was performed both nationally and internationally, going on to win the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest. In 2013, James choreographed ‘The Rite of Spring’ for Oper Graz, celebrating the centenary of Nijinsky’s masterpiece. In 2014, Wilton choreographed another original piece, ‘Last Man Standing’. A feature-length work, it boasts of influences as diverse as the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the novel ‘The Last Hero’ by Terry Pratchett (a favourite author of Wilton’s).

Based in Cornwall, his company, James Wilton Dance, is an associate company at The Hall for Cornwall in Truro. James also does a large amount of education work for organisations such as Youth Dance England and Connect Sadler’s Wells.

Throughout his body of work James uses a dance language that’s bold and audacious. Contemporary dance blended with the physicality of martial arts, Wilton’s choreography is fiercely athletic but what sets Wilton apart is that the performance is more than just the moves. James explores, with great empathy, large almost mythic themes. The incredible ‘Last Man Standing’ discusses what it means to survive; what it takes to (literally) be the last man standing. The work is honest and thought-provoking. Wilton isn’t afraid to ask the big questions and it gives his choreography a real sense of purpose. Wilton’s observations on life, death and everything in-between may sound nihilistic, but the lively, pulsating rhythm accompanying his work (a progressive-rock soundtrack) is a constant presence and the heartbeat of his choreography. There is hope, suggests Wilton, and it is this optimism I found in abundance when I interviewed him in June. It was a good time to catch James as he has just returned to the rehearsal studio to put the finishing touches to his latest work, ‘Leviathan’, which debuts at the Barbican Theatre on 21 September.

Hello James – you began taking dance lessons at 15 years old – what first inspired you to take up dance?

“I’d always been into sports, martial arts, athletics – I’d always been a very active person and when it came to choosing options for GCSEs I wanted to do something active, something with my body, and so dance seemed like a better alternative to doing geography. So I ended up choosing dance and went on with it from there, really.”

Your career in choreography started whilst you were in your second year studying at London Contemporary Dance School – how did your dance training inform your early works?

“My dance training was quite different to my work, to be honest. At London Contemporary Dance School, most of the training I received whilst I was there was standard, almost balletic type. So there wasn’t much influence there, but what I did get from my training was lots of time to experiment, to find my own choreographic voice. So training didn’t inform my choreographic style too much, but having access to the studio really did allow me to evolve my practice. Right from the beginning I knew the work I wanted to make, I knew it I wanted it to have similarities to martial arts. So I drew upon what I felt was more true to me, I guess.”

How do you feel your work has developed since then?

“Good question! I think it’s become a bit more expansive. My early works were very compact, everything was very direct, and went very directly from A to B, forceful in some ways. Whereas now I’m a bit more expansive and the work has more fluidity. We’re still retaining that ability to be powerful when need be, so I guess that’s one way it’s different. Another way it’s different is when I first started creating work, the first piece was only six minutes, the next piece after that was twelve minutes, then fifteen minutes and then making a work lasting over an hour, and that’s what I’m doing with the next work. The pieces have got longer, and as a result, there’s more depth to each piece, themes are explored in much greater detail.”

There’s a strong influence of martial arts running through your work – what does using that enable you to do?

“There’s a kind of roundedness to martial arts that’s very important. A lot of dance technique, especially ballet, talks about moving up and away from the floor, whereas with martial arts, there’s a lot of using the floor to generate power. They talk about the energy from the floor coming up through and then going out through you as you move. So we use that sense of energy coming up and outwards, rather than away from the floor. A lot of my work is about contact work, engaging with another person, so because we’re doing all of this contact work, it’s a good way of incorporating martial arts themes and ideas. So in duets, rather than just lifting each other, and being graceful, it’s about taking control of the other person, and the person likewise trying to take control of you. That’s another natural way of incorporating martial arts. So the other way is about creating with Aikido, where you take another person’s energy and use fluidity to generate power. It’s become what my work is about; using fluidity as power. A lot of my work also has break-dance influences, but it’s different to how break dancers do it, because we’re using a fluid, more expansive, expressive technique– rather than being so compact. It’s a similar vocabulary, but stretched.”

Leviathan, Credit: Steve Tanner

How does your work evolve during rehearsal? Do you see it as a finished product at this point, or is it a more collaborative process?

“Each rehearsal is different; with a brand new work like Leviathan, we’ve literally just finished our first week and the process so far has been interesting. First off, I worked in close collaboration with my lead solo dancer, Sarah Jane Taylor. She and I have been talking about Leviathan for two and a half years, so by the time we stepped into the studio on Monday last week, we already had two and a half years of talking about the work and thinking about what the possibilities could be. Now we’re concentrating on working on some of the ideas we’ve come up with over this time. So partly it is about collaboration with the dancers and asking the dancers to come up with ideas, and part of it is just me teaching the dancers material, which they would then evolve in their own way. We come at it from two different approaches in that way. In having such a long lead-in, we’d already established a lot; we knew what we were aiming for, basically. We spent weeks, months really, with Sarah and I in the studio, just the two of us trying out ideas. So we had a really strong grounding, an understanding of what we wanted to do. We weren’t coming into the studio on the first day with nothing. It would be limiting if we came in with everything prepared, but there’s a structure there to start on.”

You often explore large, mythic themes in your work, and Leviathan takes its lead from Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. It’s the ultimate man vs nature story; what drew you to it?

“I grew up in Cornwall, and my company is now based in Cornwall and Plymouth so I’ve always had a very strong connection to the sea, we’re surrounded by it down here. The sea’s in my blood a little bit, I guess. For me, Moby Dick is the most prominent piece of writing about our relationship with the sea and nature, that there is. Also, with the way the world is at the moment, with humankind’s relationship to nature, I see Moby Dick in the modern sense being about how, despite our advances in technology and society, and everything we’ve achieved, we’re still at the mercy of nature. Within the book, Captain Ahab is the ship’s captain and he’s in control of his boat, but he’s still so powerless. That’s what drew me to the book originally.”

What do you hope your audiences will take away with them after watching Leviathan?

“Well, I hope they’ll take away a number of things with them, really. First and foremost, I hope they see the world-class physicality and athleticism of the dancers; the dancers are on another level in terms of their ability. I’m still buzzing from our first week of rehearsals; I’ve never seen anything quite like it; the work we’ve achieved in the studio this week. So, on a very surface level, the audience will have come away having seen absolutely mesmerising, top-quality dance that you won’t see in any other company. I hope they will like the story, and the way we’ve adapted it, the story put into a modern context, and our relationship with nature – global warming, deforestation and all those things. I do hope that audiences come away, not totally wanting to re-evaluate their relationship with nature, but if anything, to think about what they can do to try to make their impact on nature smaller. Also, I think it’s going to be a really gripping and emotive story. I think from a narrative standpoint, the audiences will feel compelled and moved by the intensity of the Captain Ahab character. His ferocity and anger directed at this whale, Moby Dick, and then the juxtaposition of that anger and ferocity with the fragility and beauty of the White Whale; how that White Whale goes from something so calm, awe-inspiring to crushingly powerful… I hope the audience will be moved by this; emotionally, perhaps even physically, I’m not sure. That’s what I think audiences would get from this.”

What’s been your career highlight so far?

“Everything I’ve done in my career I’ve loved – every moment. My highlight? I guess the one that sticks out for me is in 2013; I created a work for the opening ceremony of the Rugby League World Cup. It was performed in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and then at the semi-finals at Wembley Stadium. I created this work for 50 dancers and it was performed to over 110,000 people over both performances. That stands out as a highlight for me. Being on the pitch at Wembley…it took me a second to let the enormity of it all sink in. It was incredible, especially as someone who’s grown up watching sport all his life. People dream of playing a game of football at Wembley, and to be there performing, and doing what I love there, really was a highlight for me.”


What advice would you give to young people wanting a career in dance? Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?

“I think the advice I’d give is that it’s an incredibly rewarding career but as with anything really, you get out what you put in. So you have to work incredibly hard to make the most of the career. For me, I do it and I love it, and that love really drives me onwards. The advice I’d always give to young people when they ask about careers is just be prepared to work harder than you would in many other jobs. Physically, it’s exhausting. Mentally, it’s exhausting. Nobody really told me before I went in that it was going to be like this, but I went into it because it was hard. I’ve always loved a challenge, so I went into it wanting a challenge; wanting to push myself, push my body, push my mind to new places.”

Finally, with contemporary dance so reliant on funding for its survival, are you optimistic about the future of dance?

“Am I optimistic about the future of dance? Yes, I think so. With contemporary dance, the audiences are growing and appreciation is growing, particularly with the younger generation. I think they’re getting more and more of an understanding of not only dance, but art and culture within life. I think I’m very optimistic – every year I teach about 100 University / College groups and the energy and the enthusiasm you get from them, it gives me hope for the future of the art form. I think there’s going to be a really strong future for dance. I think that the funding situation is always there, but I hope that the government’s beginning to understand that without culture, without all these things informing our minds, it’s difficult to continue functioning. Winston Churchill famously said that without the arts, what is the point? What are we fighting for? Culture is how generations survive, how they’re remembered. I think that funding’s always a scary thing, but I think I am optimistic for the future.”


Leviathan will debut as part of the Ocean City Festival on 21 September 2016 at Barbican Theatre, Plymouth