Rising British dance star brings two works to KL

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Cousins: It’s about the people in these relationships.

DECLARED one of the UK’s most promising choreographic talents, young British choreographer James Cousins has had nothing short of a meteoric rise in the world of dance.

He has been lauded for his ability to create visually stunning dance pieces that are dynamic and emotional without being pretentious. Audiences in Malaysia can go through the journey first-hand with two dance works, Without Stars and There We Have Been, presented by the British Council Malaysia at the KuAsh Theatre in Kuala Lumpur until Sunday.

When The Edge Financial Daily met with him, Cousins said he is happy for the opportunity to showcase contemporary dance through the two works as part of an international tour to four countries around Southeast Asia.

Inspired by famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood, Cousins felt drawn to the “beautiful and very tender” tone of the book, which tells a story through the perspective of Tokyo college student Toru Watanabe and his relationships with two very different women.

It is the relationship between Toru and the emotionally troubled Naoko that spurred Cousins to create There We Have Been.

“I’ve read a lot of Murakami novels, but this is the one that is most human, and I really connected with that,” he said. “The characters are so rich and multi-layered and have a lot of depth to them.”

Debuted last year, the piece has received significant praise, not to mention a lot of buzz, for its demanding physical performance — the female character never once touches the floor throughout the 18-minute work.

“It is to show the dependency of the female character on the male character, though it does not mean that he is manipulating her. The female is not weak,” said Cousins. Definitely not a dead weight, the unusual duet sees the couple going through various movements that bring out that vulnerability and tender intimacy.

“It also looks amazing and sells tickets,” quipped the choreographer with a small laugh.

For the international tour, Cousins picked up from the end of the first work and created Without Stars, which is described as the “opposite spectrum” of There We Have Been.

Featuring four dancers, the newer work explores similar emotions in completely different ways, notably from the male character’s perspective.

“Aesthetically it looks very different,” Cousins said.

A recipient of the Robert Cohan Award for most promising dance artiste when he graduated, Cousins — who also dances and creates ballet works — was selected to join the cast of top British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s famous Swan Lake. Praised by Bourne for his talent, he was also the winner of the first New Adventures Choreographer Award created by Bourne.

“He made me realise that you can create something that is very physical and aesthetically ‘wow’, but also makes people see a story as well,” said Cousins on what he learnt working for and with the acclaimed artiste.

But he emphasised that he is definitely not trying to be the next Matthew Bourne. “Matthew’s work is very explicit and narrative [driven] in who the characters are, whereas I take a more open interpretation.”

That will be something Cousins hopes will help audiences here in Malaysia connect to and take home from the showcase.

“You don’t have to know the story. It’s about the people in these relationships, so someone who has not read the book can be moved by it,” said Cousins.

Admitting contemporary dance can be an intimidating and somewhat alienating dance form, the London Contemporary Dance School graduate divulged that he often uses his father as a benchmark to make sure he creates works that resonate with an audience, not alienate them in the name of “art”.

A moment in Without Stars. Photo by David Foulkes

“My dad is really not a dance fan. He is a rugby player and a dentist and doesn’t get what I do,” said Cousins with a laugh. “My standard is [for] my dad to understand it, enjoy and take something from it.”

He recounted with relief that after watching There We Have Been, his father said it was his favourite so far, adding with a grin, “I’ve done my job!”

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 17, 2014.