April 25, 2017
About ten minutes into ROSALIND, I am convinced that I am about to see a work really use the medium of dance to its full, expressive potential, without relying on overblown narratives or simplistic caricatures. A muddled ending prevents a full affirmation of this thought, but this is exciting new work from James Cousins Company, with slick movement direction, tightly worked scenography and four virtuosic dancers.
Cross-dressing, conformity and enforced gendered behaviours form the thematic background and movement palette of the piece, all tied together by a female voiceover (Jasmine Blackborrow) that confronts the audience throughout.
ROSALIND follows an editing logic loser to a film than a literary work: the piece cuts between different worlds or contexts, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, through different lighting, costumes or sound cues. Each section doesn’t leave its predecessor unthinkingly behind: images are later combined, contrasted or developed to weave a textured landscape of meaning. Cousins achieves this not just temporally, but spatially, too, locating the action variously at different points in the stage, which includes the skeleton of a cube in its centre. This ability to tell and narrate visually is a skill that other choreographers, who may be gifted in creating the movement itself, sometimes lack. The role of the dramaturg differs with each artwork, but Hejin Jang is due a nod here also, as indeed is lighting designer, Lee Curran. It is riveting to watch.
Cousins nonetheless retains also a capacity for nuanced and carefully constructed steps. In suits, the dancers twitch their hands in gestures of making and time keeping; in tight corsets, they melt around each other, a sea of limbs; and in cyber-punk Renaissance wear, they grunt and pull their knees up to their faces in hunched, inward explosions. A particularly poignant image sets up Chihiro Kawasaki and Heejung Kim in white dresses, one behind the other; Kim, hidden from the audience, drops out of her dress, which is held onto by Kawasaki, and lies curled up the floor. With themes of outward and inner lives in ROSALIND, there is something here of a lost limb, a sacrificial amputation of a second self.
Of course, the work would get nowhere without the tenacity of these dancers. All four are a potent blend of athletic prowess, contrasting dance vocabularies and expressive range. We see them clicking across the stage, heads down in unison, like industrious office workers. They appear as ghostly apparitions as they mirror each other. Inho Cho performs a dance to exhaustion in his restrictive business suit. It’s a shame that in one of the final sections, Cousins almost pushes them to their limit (without embracing burnout) in a showdown that unfortunately causes a momentary loss of technique due to the sheer length of the sequence.
Tying it all together is Seymour Milton’s melodic yet distorted soundtrack, with the heavier tracks having an almost spikey impatience that is just about held back by the constant beat. Blackborrow’s performed script, written by Sabrina Mahfouz and focusing on (women’s) liberation and empowerment, is at times overbearing, especially towards the end, but it importantly both initiates and ties together themes.
Despite all this, ROSALIND suffers from a few false endings. Is it going to end on a celebration of crossing the divide? Will there be a different box to break out from? Will it end with all the dancers or just Kawasaki, the titular character, alone on the stage? Sexism is probably not going to be ‘fixed’ by one dance piece, and that is ok: there is no easy answer. But ROSALIND seems to want to give one, and while its last words are clear (‘You do not get to dress me anymore’), it’s final, ultimately spiraling few sections are not.
Go see ROSALIND. See these electric dancers, witness the collective fruits of this compelling creative team and enjoy the work of a very talented choreographer.