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We Are As Gods

by on 8 October 2021

Angels Dance on Pinheads

We Are As Gods

James Cousins Company at the Battersea Arts Centre until 10th October

Review by Suzanne Frost

James Cousins has been a rising star to keep an eye on for some time, and an interesting choreographer to follow.  As a graduate of London Contemporary Dance School, raised in the occasionally deeply self-conscious and serious world of contemporary dance, he has lately and very consciously embraced the much more commercial sector, collaborating on big West End shows, in pop music videos and fashion.  His takeover of Battersea Arts Centre, entitled We Are As Gods, is his first large scale immersive experience, intended as a celebration of dance and life after eighteen months of lockdown.  “Immersive” and “Experience” are words that are being used with careless abundance these days, so it might be useful to break down what actually happens: a cast of 70 performers – nine professional dancers from James Cousins Company, over 30 students from Cousin’s alma mater London Contemporary Dance School, plus groups of community dancers from the local area – are scattered around the many halls, stairs and secret passages of Battersea Arts Centre, moving in and out of performance moments where they mainly present previous works from Cousins’ existing repertoire.  So, there is not much actual new dance to see here, but the setting largely makes it a novel experience. 

Audience members create their own individual night, choosing their path or getting lost in the maze of the huge building, discovering surprises from basement to rooftop, outdoors and indoors.  Wafting sounds and snippets of poetry fill the dark space, creating a sort of intellectual nightclub atmosphere.  The party starts even before the show begins, downstairs in the bar area, where audience members who haven’t seen each other or been around people in ages are eagerly chatting, celebrating being together. 

Amongst the chatter and laughter, slowly something begins.  White clad people appear on the grand staircase, with gold lips and eyelashes, angelic in their appearance, with tufts of white tulle placed here and there on a shoulder or back, hinting at clouds or angel’s wings, white trainers with gold shoelaces recalling the winged feet of the Greek god Hermes.  They stare quietly into space, faces lost in reverie, a finger here and there pointing towards the heavens.  As you follow their silent command and ascend the staircase, you have to seek them out, scattered across the galleries and many hidden spaces, decorated with disco balls and ancient Greek statues, some of which wear added bits of costume- a sequined scarf here, a beaded jacket thrown over one shoulder there. 

There’s an atmosphere of opulence and decadence that contrasts nicely with the dilapidated walls and crumbling paint of the artfully neglected Battersea Arts Centre.  In the Great Hall, famously destroyed by fire in 2015, and rebuilt to incorporate rather than mask the damage, a large group of the white clad angels/gods is surrounding an unassuming but thankfully very game audience member.  “This is a safe space” the voice over keeps repeating, and explains further that a safe space doesn’t have to mean soft, cosy and intimate.  For some people the safest places to really be themselves are the sweaty walls of nightclubs, a deafening beat vibrating in their stomachs, space to move, bodies surrounded by other bodies, pulsating, dancing, meeting a stranger’s eye in the darkness for just a second.  It is a reminder that for those people – the young, maybe the more marginalised sub-cultures, for whom “safe” doesn’t mean locked up inside in isolation, their safe spaces where they can best express themselves have been cancelled for over a year and are only now being reclaimed. 

For the group of colourfully dressed young community dancers that next fill the hall, maybe “safe” is to dance in same sex couples to Shostakovich’s famous waltz with more and more wild abandon. 

When one performance ends, you usually follow the gently persuasive smile of a performer to find your next adventure, but, as is the nature of immersive “design your own night” events, there is a nagging constant fear of missing out.  Maybe there is another, more exiting performance happening somewhere else in the building right now?  Have I made the right choice picking the left door over the right?  Before the evening starts, I am assured by someone from the company’s team, that you really can’t miss anything.  However, that is hard to believe when you just discover another hidden room decorated as a 1920’s cabaret where a very dynamic duo is just finishing up the last few eights of a fantastically fun looking tap dance routine.  Lingering is useless – people are getting up and dispersing to find their next adventure.  The easiest way to make your choice is probably to simply follow the most compelling performer and sort of shadow their path, whether that leads you into a dingy basement bedroom where two dancers artfully peel each other out of their sequinned pants, or into a small courtyard where you suddenly find yourself under the stars, surprised that it is drizzling. 

It is impossible to try and understand how this event is timed or directed.  Unusual for an immersive production, there is only the slightest, subtlest stagehand intervention, and I do not experience any performance repeating, even if I often find myself like Alice in Wonderland lost in the maze of rooms and exactly where I started.  So it does make me believe that there really is no line or order to the performances and every punter’s experience is completely unique and randomised. 

I make a double turn when I spot Jemima Brown, a dancer I would consider one of the most exciting currently on the London scene, and the same can be said for ex-Rambert dancer Salomé Pressac.  I would follow these two gladly, wherever their career or their path on this particular night may take them, from a deafening, techno-infused quartet in a neon lit cube to a surprisingly tender and almost kitsch duet to George Michael’s Kissing a Fool

Cousins’ movement vocabulary and style is huge and somewhat unsettled, mixing anything from classic contemporary, to hip hop, tap, vogueing and even a prolonged twerking section.  Equally all over the place are his music choices that include anything from pop anthems to ragtime, classical or hard-core drum and bass.  I am a bit confused by him as a choreographer, but without a doubt he manages very successfully to tread a fine line between avant-garde and pure entertainment, niche and artsy, or big flashy jazz-hands commercial.  Ultimately, he is a choreographer not afraid to end this evening with a massive flash mob of all 70 performers to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody, truly unleashing the energy and enthusiasm of this young cast. 

Who knows how the pandemic will develop from here, but for this moment in time, the young are allowed to be young again, dancers can dance again, and who would begrudge them.  How safe their safe space really is, from a virologist’s point of view, is anyone’s guess, but it is joyful and surprisingly touching to see the young celebrating the return of what makes them feel alive.

Suzanne Frost, October 2021

Photography by Camilla Greenwell

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