Beyond the Box: James Cousins Company Performs in Manila

MANILA, Philippines— The turntable crackles and you begin to hear the words “You always hurt the one you love.” You are immediately overcome with a wave of nostalgia and a feeling of deep melancholy.  A man dwells in the light, sitting in the corner, as his whole life flashes before his eyes. 

An apt prelude to the turmoil that is yet to come, “Without Stars” is the first act of James Cousins’ highly-acclaimed twin bill production that made its Asian premiere presented by the British Council Philippines with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) last October  9-12, 2014. The contemporary dance piece, which mainly draws inspiration from Haruki Murakami’s novel “Norwegian Wood,” reflects the same poignancy and conflict as in the book, but is expressed in a flurry of movements. The male protagonist (played by Gareth Mole) is caught between two love interests (performed by Chihiro Kawasaki and Albert Garcia). Tension builds up as he spins in and out the manic-depressive worlds of the two characters and ends up wondering whether he has gained resolution or absolution for his actions. A distinct, disruptive noise zaps us out of the protagonist’s memory and back into reality.

“There We Have Been” is the prequel to “Without Stars,” depicting the female protagonist’s perspective of the relationship. In the seventeen-minute act, Kawasaki never touches the floor. Supported by Georges Hann, their bodies are vehicles for portraying fragile dependency, constantly enveloping, unwrapping and then folding in each other’s embrace. 

In one of the interviews during a press conference, Cousins reveals that the main inspiration for this act is an experience from a workshop he was a part of. They were asked to stay inside a red box and move within the confines of that space. “But I wanted to move beyond that [box],” says Cousins. One could surmise that this statement reflects his very style in choreography. Bold and complex movements are equally met with a tenderness and fluidity of expression that can never be confined within a space nor a genre. Fran Moseley’s hand in the creative direction, as well as Joe Hornsby’s production genius blended well in a tasteful fusion of sensory stimuli.

Arnie Alesna, contributor, blogger and a former dancer from the Philippines notes the high amount of detail created in the personas that are emphasized with the dynamic musical score and stage lighting. He affirmed his impression of the piece through his question in the press conference: “One of the questions that I threw to James that night was whether it was his intent to make some parts cinematic in effect and his response was: “Yes. I like film and this is my small contribution in this collaborative work.” 

The blogger also recounts his experience as a viewer of the piece: “As a lover of the arts, this was one twin-bill presentation that truly got my attention as a viewer and a former dancer.  The performance was clean and smooth.  The dancers owned that moment as they are on stage.  The technical effects were clearly designed to highlight the piece and not distort it.  As a former theatre practitioner, this was something that truly tickled my memories of my time on stage and the desire to be back on stage as a performer. [I am reminded of the] sense of fulfilment of performing your heart out for the people – your audience.” 

In her article in, contributor Ma. Glaiza Lee explores the dimensionality of the way the characters were presented and seeks to understand human reactions in liminal spaces or experiences of in-betweenness. “There We Have Been” and “Without Stars” are obviously not light-hearted dance pieces. Just like the novel, the two contemporary dance pieces are heart-rending, dealing with dark topics such as suicide and death. While one has to be prepared for the heavy emotional backlash, the audience is also encouraged to look for the beauty in it.”

Cousins’ contemporary dance pieces reflect the overlap between forms of art, specifically in literature and dance. As a choreographer, he has an intuitive sense of how to transform narrative into a lyrical body of work. His dance company is able to transcend the limitations of the body by portraying relatable experiences for the Filipinos and people across cultures through sheer creativity and undeniable talent.  

The James Cousins Company just finished the East Asian (Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia) and the United Kingdom leg of the production, with Yorkshire as the penultimate stop of the 2014 Tour.