“I wanted to make a piece that mattered, that would help people in some way,” the founder of the James Wilton Dance tells me.
Rewriting the rules of dance, not just in terms of choreography, but in subject matter too, he says: “I started the company because there wasn’t anyone doing what I wanted to do – really physical, progressive contemporary dance with break dancing and martial arts.”
Take The Storm, his latest show, which compares the movement of the mind with the weather. His trademark, athletic, emotionally choreographed new dance piece also tackles thorny topics such as mental health and depression, while encompassing the science behind it.
“I am very aware that depression and anxiety are still something people don’t talk about which really resonates with me as a working class male whose upbringing encourages us to bury things and not talk about our feelings – to keep a stiff upper lip.”
“The metaphor of the unseen is the overlying theme. You can’t see the wind but you can see how things move, and you can’t see a person’s thoughts but you can see how they react and the effect those thoughts have on the body.
“There are lots of crossovers between meteorology and psychology, and I wanted to connect the two,” he explains.
Enrolling the help of Dr David Boleyn at Cambridge University “to ensure the science backed it up and helped form the narrative and shape the piece,” James “had a very definite idea of The Storm being about the human mind, in particular happiness and unhappiness.”
And was Dr Boleyn helpful? “Very, because by publicly linking his world with ours through art, it offers a different way of getting his message across, increasing awareness of his work while engaging with mental health and the public. We provide an artistic middle ground which is fantastic.”
The resulting high energy mix of contemporary dance, martial arts and hip hop set to a punk-rock score, that is Storm, has wowed audiences and critics alike.
“It’s exactly what I wanted it to be,” James admits. “It’s been really cathartic and therapeutic bringing The Storm to the stage but it was a slow steady process, choreographed over 18 months with my co-founder, and lead dancer, Sarah Jane Taylor.
As for the performance itself, James says: “It’s emotional and mentally and physically demanding, so it takes a lot out of the dancers.
“Storm resonates particularly with people who have experienced trauma. One old lady came up to me last night and said it was the most accurate portrayal she had come across in any medium. I think it’s because it is real, honest and pure.”
James Wilton came into dance late, while doing his GCSEs at school in Cornwall, going onto dance school, where his student piece was restaged by Scottish Dance Theatre, his acclaim growing accordingly.
“Since GCSE I’ve always been more interested in creating than performing,” he states.
Having then won a competition to choreograph a global dance piece for Sadlers Wells and bring it to the stage, “things snowballed from there. It was a knock on effect really,”
“It’s an incredibly competitive world, but if you continually work and build on what you’ve achieved, it can only work in your favour,” he says.
“I’m under no illusions that my choreography is changing the world but on some small scale it’s making a difference to the people who see it.”
So is The Storm a reflection of his own mental health? “Have I suffered, no not really, but I am very aware that depression and anxiety are still something people don’t talk about which really resonates with me as a working class male whose upbringing encourages us to bury things and not talk about our feelings – to keep a stiff upper lip.”
Performing in The Storm himself, James encourages dance-lovers and novices alike to give it a go: “Even if you take it at surface value, the strength of performance and physicality really stand out,” he promises.
And with his last two tours selling out at Pegasus, this is the company’s first time at Oxford Playhouse.
James Wilton’s The Storm comes to Oxford Playhouse on Tuesday.
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