INTERVIEW by SARAH HAWLEY | PHOTOGRAPHY by ANNE ECKERSLEY and VAL DUNCAN
Dance is a powerful medium for expressing emotion, ideas, and the trials and joys of being human. It takes creativity and passion to choreograph a truly impactful piece, something dancer James Cousins knows well. At only 22 years of age, he is already being praised internationally for his artistic vision and talent. His recent win of the prestigious New Adventures Choreographer Award has provided him with the resources to choreograph and put on a showcase of original work next autumn. For all his accomplishments, the thing that stands out about James is his openness and genuine friendliness. Beyond the confident choreographer and artist is an enthusiastic dancer, grateful for the opportunities given to him and eager to provide them to youth across England.
How old were you when you first started dancing, and when did you know you wanted to be a choreographer?
I started dancing when I was 11. It was something we had to do as part of PE, and the teacher said she was running an after-school club, so I decided to go along. From there, there were some youth companies I joined, and one thing led to another and it became what I did all the time.
In terms of choreography… I don’t know. I always used to make up dances when I was a kid. I bossed my sister, like, “We’re going to dance to this. We’re going to do Riverdance around our room.” [laughs] I was probably 15 when I did my first bits of proper choreography, rather than just dancing in my living room. It’s always been something I’ve been really interested in—not just creating movement, but how to put people together in space, how to structure things. When I went to the London Contemporary Dance School, I was given lots of opportunities there to really push my choreography, and I ended up doing half-dance, half-choreography by the time I graduated.
You’re only 22 years old, and you’ve already made an incredible impression on the dance scene. Your work has been described as imaginative and original, with glowing reviews for your pieces “The Still Point” and “Taste Water Again.” What inspires you to produce such powerful work?
Different things for each piece. For “The Still Point,” it was very much inspired by the music. Also, I’d managed to get seven of the best dancers in my year at college, so that inspired me—having lots of people, having the whole piece inspired by spatial patterns, the shift of people within the space.
“Taste Water Again” was inspired by the fact that the news for a while went very morbid: there were the floods in Pakistan, there were all sorts of things going on, and this loss and grief was everywhere. It was kind of inspired by that—this notion of this female dancer whose world had fallen apart around her, and she was on her quest to find her place again, find her luck again, find her past.
You just won the inaugural New Adventures Choreographer Award. You’ll be mentored by Matthew Bourne and will receive £15,000 support. The award will culminate in a showcase performance of the work you develop over the year. Do you have any idea yet of the themes you want to explore in this piece?
I’m actually going to make a triple bill for the showcase. One piece we’ve already started is a trio. I’m looking at the contrast between a really established relationship and new love. The other two pieces are going to be for large groups. One’s going to go back to what I did in my first piece, really being driven by the music—hopefully we’ll get an electronic sound score composed for it—and working with this idea of spatial patterns. The last piece, in contrast, will be a fun finale piece, so hopefully it should be a good variety of work throughout the evening. It’s all in the process of being developed at the moment. Creation will be towards the middle of next year, with the showcase happening in August, and then hopefully a tour following on from that.
As a choreographer, you have to take into account each individual dancer’s movements as well as the overall aesthetic of the piece. How difficult is it to choreograph an entire piece?
I get very inspired by the people I’m working with, so sometimes I’ll go in with movement and set the dancers up, but then I’ll set them tasks to create their own movement and then mix it with movement I’ve given them. Hopefully, after a little while of playing in the studio, we find a vocabulary that’s really rich and has elements of me but also is very individual to them. No one’s just dancing my material—everyone’s dancing everyone’s material. Structure is what I love, so I feel very comfortable playing with structure and different people, and the more people I have the happier I am, like, “Give me more people, I want to play with them!” [laughs]
You work with Youth Dance England as an official Ambassador. Why do you think it’s important to encourage more young people to become involved in dance?
One reason that it’s so fun doing Youth Dance England is because that’s how I started. I never went to a ballet school or did RAD syllabus or whatever; I just did dance in my school and youth dance companies, and that’s all I did before I went into professional training. I was so fortunate in the opportunities I had.
I know it’s not like that in every area, and I know that if I hadn’t gone to this school, I probably wouldn’t have ended up where I am today. One thing that Youth Dance England is trying to do is make the opportunities that are available standardized across the country. That’s what I’ve tried to help them with, and to promote how important youth dance is.
What is it about dance that makes it such a powerful medium for getting a message across?
It’s just so visceral. When you watch dance in life, it moves you somehow. I think watching it on a screen is a different experience; I think you need to see it live. At the end, the dancers are sweating, you see them out of breath, you see they’re exhausted, and you can’t help but become engaged in it and feel something for these people. You’re seeing people go through this experience, and you go through it with them, and it can take you to places that other, more narrative mediums can’t take you.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
As I said before, I think seeing dance live is the best way to experience it, so if anyone can see one of my performances live, that would be amazing. I want to create work that hopefully people want to come and see and will be moved by, will be entertained by, will be inspired by. I think you need to see it live, ideally, but if not, just having people keep up to date with my website or my Twitter, or watch my works on YouTube and Vimeo, would be amazing. Hopefully next autumn we’ll be touring a lot more and maybe even in 2013 doing international touring.
I’m always looking for new collaborators for costume or lighting or set or music, for other people to inspire me. If someone’s a writer or anyone who thinks they’ve got something that could inspire a piece of dance, I’d love to hear from them—if not a collaboration, then just for new ideas. Any support is more than welcome. If someone did enjoy a piece, I’d love to hear that, or if you’ve got an opinion on it or it made you think of something or you don’t understand it, anything. Tell me what you think—I’d be more than grateful for that.