James Cousins approach to lighting design in his choreography

James Cousins is a young choreographer who was awarded the Robert Cohan Award for most promising dance artist and won the inaugural New Adventures Choreographer Award. He set up his company in 2012 and has toured internationally to critical acclaim. (Reference – http://www.theplace.org.uk/james-cousins-company)

I am evaluating two of his productions, “There We Have Been” and “Without Stars”. Exploring his approach to lighting design in each, how they contribute to the dance and narrative and the impact they have on the audience. I have chosen lighting design, as the lights were used as a technology to enhance dance and its narrative.

In this essay I examine how the lighting design is used and question how and if it enhances the dance. I will also be conceptualising the idea of how these dances would be affected with the addition of digital technology.

“There We Have Been” and “Without Stars” are two dances choreographed by James Cousins, both of which are based on the book Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Both of these dances used lighting to highlight the themes of the body, space and time that sometimes confused and surprised the audience.

“There We Have Been” began with a simple spot light, which shone on a female dancer who was surrounded by darkness. We could only see her from the torso above. After a few minutes performing with her arms and head, she suddenly dropped, revealing that she was elevated the whole time. In the scenes that followed we saw that a male dancer was constantly lifting her throughout the whole dance piece.

This opening scene challenged the audiences’ perception of space on the stage. They were led to believe that they were seeing a solo dancer on the stage but when she dropped, it evoked a surprising reaction. Where did she go? Was she elevated the whole time?

The lighting is carefully used to reduce the vast emptiness of the stage and make the performance feel intimate with spotlights on the performers surrounded by darkness. The audience’s vision is reduced to a smaller area. This is reflective of the intimate nature of the piece and highlights the close relationship between the two dancers.

The ending scene of “There We Have Been” demonstrated the use of shadows and illusions to surprise the audience. In a similar structure to the beginning of the dance, we see the female dancer again from the torso up, her shadow is casted onto the floor of the space. Gradually, the male dancer she was previously lifted by walked away from the light while the female dancer was still lifted. It was an impactful moment and created questions for the audience, as we don’t know how she is still being lifted and who by.

“Without Stars” was also inspired by the story “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami. James quotes from the book. “The memories would slam against me like the waves of an incoming tide, sweeping my body along to a place where I lived with the dead. Powerless, I could go nowhere.”

The dance explores relationships between the dancers to convey powerful messages. These relationships are enhanced with the intricate detail of movement, dynamics and positioning. The messages are also conveyed to the audience with the help with the lighting and sound.

The opening for Without Stars began with the song, You Always Hurt The Ones You Love by The Mills Brothers; the sound resembled an old vinyl record with subtle crackling noise. This scene was further enhanced with a soft flicker coming from a sepia tone filtered spotlight, which shone on the male performer sat in the middle of the space. The lighting and sound combined gave the assumption that this scene was set in a dreamlike state as if it was in the past or an old memory.

Throughout the dance, there were scenes in the performance where the lights shone brightly on the audience blinding them temporarily, in unison with dramatic punctuated music. The lights here were used to create and emphasise a dramatic effect.

After seeing the two performances, I got in touch with James with some questions about his process to choreographing the two dances and how he collaborated with the lighting designers. The full questions and answers are included as an appendix.

“The lighting evolved at the same time as the choreography. Lee and I had had a few discussions then one rehearsal he just came in and said that he’d had an idea. We tried it out and immediately I knew it was right. The two worlds merged perfectly.” It is interesting to see that both the lighting design and choreography evolved together for “There We Have Been”. This demonstrates that collaboration works effectively if the members are involved throughout the whole development of the production and elements such as lighting design are taken into consideration from the start and ideas are communicated effectively.

“Guy came to me very early on with a plan. I think it was in the first week of rehearsals! I was shocked at first! Thinking, how can we have a lighting plan when I haven’t even begun setting choreography yet! But the more I thought about it the more I realised his design fitted perfectly.” “Without Stars” took an alternative approach. A plan for the lighting design was constructed early on, fortunately it worked in the dance piece as a whole but it would be good to test how this works further and see how it impacts the choreography or how the choreography impacts the lighting design.

“It begun to influence the piece in a really positive way.” James mentions that the lighting design did have an impact on the choreography in a positive way. It will be interesting to explore how an interactive digital technology has the same impact and to compare the different approaches James used to the lighting design in both pieces.

“…the flickering came from us wanting to distinguish past, present and in his head! We tried to come up with a set of rules that defined each of these ‘locations’…The blinding lights from the back were something that came much later on when we felt we needed to add some punctuation to the structure and so the became a device to help do that.” James has effectively communicated his ideas to the audience as I interpreted a similar idea when I watched the piece as an audience member. In some cases there is less meaning behind certain decisions and it is used for a simple effect, such as adding punctuation to the structure.

James Cousins successfully used the lighting design to enhance and emphasise the narrative he wished to communicate to the audience. For me it raised the question of how would interactive digital technology similarly impact and influence choreography? This is what I will explore as part of my studio practice and I will use my research and interview with James to help understand a choreographers approach to lighting design. I aim to appreciate both the choreography and what technology is used evenly in order to communicate strong and engaging messages.

Full Interview Text

There is a saying in the theatre ‘its a long way from page to stage’. Can you describe the process you went through collaborating to get to the final dance?

Each piece went though a slightly different process.

In ‘There We Have Been’ my aim was to capture the atmosphere and emotion of the relationship between the two main characters. In terms of what I actually took from the book it was a very small amount of text that inspired the work. I picked out 4 or 5 paragraphs that were relevant to the relationship and we worked with these as our starting point.

In Without Stars I wanted to present more of the narrative arch of the novel. I identified the key scenes within the novel and worked on creating short sketches that captured the essence of the relationship within that scene.

In terms of collaboration, a lot of it was with the dancers. I created situations, and tasks for the dancers to work within to create movement responding to the narrative of the scene.

What made you choose Norwegian Wood as an inspiration for both There We Have Been and Without Stars?

It’s a very dark, intense and highly emotional novel with a very fragile and beautiful narrative. As well as the overall world and atmosphere of the novel I was also very drawn to the characters. They are all so rich and multi-layered and this really interested me and inspired me. I knew it would provide me with lots of things to research as well as give the dancers real depth to their performance.

In There We Have Been, I felt that the use of lighting played an important part in the dance, playing tricks on our mind with illusions, highlighting the body with silhouettes and adding an atmosphere to the whole performance with different levels and colours of lighting.

When you collaborated with Lee Curran to choreograph the dance and lights. How did the process work?

E.g. Was the lighting originally planned or added in later after your 3 week collaboration with the dancers?

The lighting evolved at the same time as the choreography. Lee and I had had a few discussions then one rehearsal he just came in and said that he’d had an idea. We tried it out and immediately I knew it was right. The two worlds merged perfectly.

What sorts of challenges were there that you had to overcome?

Trying to keep someone off the floor for 17 minutes is obviously a massive challenge. It’s made even harder when you’re trying to make re choreography original and tell a story too. One of the biggest challenges was getting the flow of the choreography. I was very clear that it should look seamless and effortless but this quality took a long time to come!

How did you deal with these?

We found the flow by pushing through and believing it would come, and it did one day out of nowhere just seem to appear. Something seemed to shift and a real understanding developed between the two dancers.

To be honest I never thought we’d create 17 minutes of her off the floor but once we started I kept believing it could do more and pushed the dancers beyond their limits to discover new things and to go for longer.

Were there any surprises for you in the way the dancers and the lighting worked together?

It looked better than I ever thought it would though! The illusion the lights give of her floating gets me every time!!

In Without Stars, I also felt there was a strong use of lighting. I really liked the flickering at the start and the moments when the light shone brightly in our eyes. Again would you be able to describe your process collaborating with Guy Hoare?

Guy came to me very early on with a plan. I think it was in the first week of rehearsals! I was shocked at first! Thinking, how can we have a lighting plan when I haven’t even begun setting choreography yet! But the more I thought about it the more I realised his design fitted perfectly.

We marked the grid of lights out in the space so we could work with it as a spacial structure. It begun to influence the piece in a really positive way.

Features like the flickering came from us wanting to distinguish past, present and in his head! We tried to come up with a set of rules that defined each of these ‘locations’. Flickering was used for in the past, pulsing for in his head and static for present.

The blinding lights from the back were something that came much later on when we felt we needed to add some punctuation to the structure and so the became a device to help do that.