Facing a storm, be it meteorological or manmade, there are various responses, innate, considered or irrational, that people make – do nothing, batten down, evacuate, even chase, watching cloud formations or personal interactions, trying to comprehend the imminent impact. The publicity for The Storm from James Wilton Dance company asked, “In this storm can you find peace?”

Heading to Oxford Playhouse, then, a front of questions loomed. With the unavoidable political and environmental contexts, foremost was what type of storm was this? We were told only to expect seven contemporary dancers “combining acrobatics, break dancing and martial arts to specially composed thundering electro-rock”; what transpired to this viewer was a storm of human dimensions.

Premiered in autumn 2018, the work’s relevance has only amplified with time. One reason for this is doubtless the scope for individual interpretations the audience could (and did) make. Before a half-full house of mixed ages and groups, this storm unfolded in a sequence of episodes, which raised the further question of where the advertised mixture of “dance and behavioural neuroscience” was at play – through the motion of dancing or the prism of watching?  Most of the episodes followed a couple, trio or quartet format, the conflicting pair shadowed by the mediating friend or friends. These very much echoed the advertising tag “You can’t see unhappiness, but you can see how it changes people”.

Even with love and relationships we talk about the gathering and weathering of a storm, and this it seemed is what the dance did in protracted fashion for much of the first half. The edge and violence of behavioural breakdown were well represented amongst several vivid curations of physical and emotional conflict, played out particularly by the leading couple where Sarah Jane Taylor shone as the female lead. The choreography to portray harmony and discord, dependence and detachment, was often clever and sometimes brilliant in design, and particularly brilliant in execution, though not without cliché. Impetus and adrenalin were likewise in evidence, not least through the sound and lighting, whilst also capturing a storm’s incessance too.

All seven dancers started on stage, with a music beat like an oncoming weather front. In this conversational introduction, with harmonies, smiles and interaction, all performers watching each other, the multiple dimensions of friendship were brilliantly achieved with synchronised moves repeated at different heights. By the third episode all had become much more tempestuous: three static shadows stood motionless whilst four dynamic dancers hurdled and tumbled behind them in a dark wave-breaking cacophony, singling out three protagonists before the fourth episode played in an almost slow-motion sequence ended by one lightning clap. The dance conveyed convulsions extremely well, furthering the question who was the stormy one, who the tormented soul?

In the fifth episode the bass re-entered like gunshots, a fracturing, rhythmic music reminiscent of bands like Massive Attack or Propellerheads, backing acrobatics and break-dance shapes that could and should have been more explicitly employed across the piece to highlight the mixture of contemporary modes. Handstands, hand-walkovers and straddles were all controlled with impressive ease; the music was not, however, what we call electro-rock.

By the sixth episode we had only one solo, yet there was throughout an amazing amount of separation and isolation on stage. The seventh episode had a lovely ending of pairs lunging against each other, never certain whether supporting or repelling, until only one dancer remained. Is this a story of who or what matters most?

The lunge figure returned, not a support but a holding back, a failed attempt to stem the tide. Whilst there was great athleticism on display, this was not a piece that was overtly athletic in physique (as opposed to physicality). There were moments of beautifully shaped and defined muscularity, but the focus was elsewhere: on the emotional connections perhaps. There was lots of floor work and lots of pair work, rolling and passing under and over each other. But it was also angular: for all the pair work, it was rare that the two found perfect symmetry. When they did, it was sharper and more obvious, even with knowing looks to the audience.

The much shorter second half started audially, much more obviously a storm with sounds of waves, wind and spray. This is one of those pieces that needs to be seen from many angles, that gives many different perspectives, not least as one sensed the storm force expending itself. I moved seat, therefore, to look for the architecture of the choreography. The clichés were ever-present: heavy breathing and exaggerated exhalations; curling introspection; pensive head movements. But it did convey well the hurt inflicted by those in the storm on those trying to support them, the red lighting of these opening second half episodes patently suggesting the ultimate blood price to the conflict.

The peripheral dancers, as onlookers, hangers on, friends, deserve mention and praise for their dancing. But in the whole piece they rapidly became indistinct, their non-descript clothing making them hard to distinguish. Does this indistinctness represent the indiscriminatory nature of collateral damage?

There were two definitive impressions. One was the sense of rising levels: rising tensions, friction, emotion, investment, conflict, misapprehension; sadly, the music and lighting didn’t always reflect this, and the episodic nature reduced the development of intensity. The other message was that characters could not see their way clearly – the disorientation of the storm was undeniable.

The second half provided a truly solo episode, and (as in the first) it was again the excellent female lead Sarah Jane Taylor, drawing expressive shapes more than covering ground. There was more symmetry in the second half and, following the solo, the consecutive and mounting entry of the whole cast was architecturally well conceived and crisply executed. Yet again, though, we were left with the main three protagonists and a bathing of orange light. This imbalance only served to set up questions of the first half – what was it trying to build that could be so quickly explored and exorcised in the second? Where was the catharsis?

Finally, halfway through the second half, the pace and intensity quickened, the episodes of introspective gratuity shortened, and we returned to the bass-dominated incessant rhythmic propulsion – amidst a rain of falling ticker tape, a flood of white or bright light, and the inevitable clichéd haze, we were left in no doubt of the centrality of the female lead. It was not quite the storm ride one anticipated, but what it lost in translation it repaid in execution, and the company sequences highlighted some cleverly layered and interwoven choreography. For a greater thrill, perhaps, stay cosily at home and watch the storm dance sequences of Bollywood films instead.

Charlotte Stacey