FORMER Park House pupil James Cousins was once tipped by renowned choreographer Matthew Bourne as one to watch. Now he has a company of his own and a growing reputation in the dance world. He returns to his home town next month with his latest work inspired by one of Shakespeare’s most headstrong and independent heroines, Rosalind. TRISH LEE spoke to him about the new piece
SINCE we spoke last year you’ve been working in South Korea developing this new work. How did you find that experience?
It was a great experience. We were in Seoul for seven weeks and really got immersed in the culture. To create with dancers and collaborators from different backgrounds and training was really exciting and I think the work got influenced by them and the culture in a really positive way. It was also challenging at times, especially with not being able to speak to each other, but we got round it and it definitely taught me a lot about myself and how I like to work.
Rosalind is inspired by one of Shakespeare’s most recognised heroines – where did the idea come from to use the character as the starting point for this piece?
When we were asked by the British Council to pitch for Shakespeare Lives, my producer said to me ‘you always do dark stories, why not chose one of the comedies?’. So I accepted her challenge and we chose As You Like It because of the gender-changing and the focus on a female lead, which both felt like very relevant themes in contemporary Korean culture. But as we started exploring it, I was thinking ‘what is actually the real interest for me in this story?’. So we kept on stripping it down and removing characters to get to the heart of it – which led us to Rosalind. She is a diplomat and a peacemaker and has great qualities of patience and kindness. She somehow feels hugely relevant in today’s Brexit/Trumpsociety; she’s been exiled and banished from her community, but that only strengthens her resolve and she works tirelessly to create a love that will survive in the real world.
How did you develop the work from that?
I worked very closely with the dancers, drawing a lot of the material from them, sometimes from the narrative, other times from a more physical starting point but really using the different facets of Rosalind, the oppressed princess and Ganymede, her male persona, and exploring how they
interacted to create a really multifaceted character.
You worked with dramaturge Hejin Jang, in what way did she bring a South Korean female perspective to the dance?
Hejin was amazing to work with, she was constantly challenging my ideas and questioning me on things. We had brilliant discussions. In South Korea, women’s rights is a really current topic, having made a huge leap from almost nothing toequality in the past 20 years, which has created a real shift in society. Hejin has gone through that, as well as living in the US, so she has this western
perspective as well. But as well as gender equality I was also interested in the themes of exile, finding your true self, and of wanting to build a broken society, which are not just restricted to women. It’s a really universal story.
Are you pleased with the final production?
Yes, surprisingly so – at times it felt like it would never happen. It felt a lot slower than other rehearsal processes due to the language barrier, which made it very difficult, and even a week before the first show we didn’t really have an idea of what it was going to be like and then suddenly we premiered and there was this show and I think it took us all by surprise which was really exciting.
What would you say was James Cousins’ trademark?
I love contact work and get really excited about it. Some really exciting things came up with the creation, some which made it in and others, which unfortunately we had to leave, but that’s all part of the journey. I try to never repeat myself and try to challenge myself with different themes and narratives to produce different things each time.I think the rich physicality will feel familiar to audiences, but hopefully it has also evolved from the last show.
The great Matthew Bourne once described you as one of the most promising choreographic talents –do you keep in touch?
Yes, Matt’s been an amazing support since winning the award. We still meet up and chat through both of our projects and he continues to be a great source of guidance and support in my career.
He’s a brilliant businessman as well as choreographer and the way he thinks about how to engage audiences is something that I am trying to learn from and find how I do that in my own way.
What would you say were the high points of your career so far? And the lowpoints?
There are obvious high points, like wining the New Adventures Choreographer Award and premieres of new shows, but just to be doing what I love is incredible and I couldn’t really ask for anything more. Every day that I’m in the studio creating with my dancers is a high point, it never feels like work. I get to work with such amazing people which for me is what it’s all about.
Low points… we live in an increasingly difficult economy for the arts, they are being flushed out of schools and public funding for new work is being cut and it feels like opportunities are getting harder to come by. There have been times when we haven’t got our funding, which is always really hard, but I try not to get down by it and actually they are the times when the passion kicks in and I get driven to make it happen more than ever.
You’ll be workshopping with your old school, Park House. What advice will you give aspiring young dancers there?
I’m really looking forward to going back to my old school. For me one of the big perks about being on the GCSE dance syllabus is that we get to go into schools all over the country and work with young people. I was very fortunate to have such an amazing creative education and the privilege of working with some incredible contemporary dancers and choreographers before going off to professional training and I try to give back now as much as I can. I guess the advice would be, work hard and believe in yourself, but remember there’s always further to go. You’ve never got there. Make milestones and celebrate achievements, but don’t sit back, you have to keep exploring and pushing deeper and that’s what makes this career so exciting as you don’t know where it’s going to take you.
The other bit of advice is to always be nice, it’s something my dad instilled in me from a young age, and it’s paid off many times in my career. And equally now, when I’m auditioning dancers, as much as I’m looking for talent I’m thinking do I want to be in a studio with this person for the next two months! It’s so important to get on and have fun with it all as there’s enough difficulty and suffering in the world as it is.
Rosalind, by James Cousins Company, tours to the Corn Exchange on Wednesday, March 29 (7.45pm). There will be a teachers workshop on Monday, March 27, and a free pre-show talk.