James Cousins graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 2010, winning the Robert Cohan Award for most promising dance artist. That year he joined the cast of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake for an international tour, and in 2012 he won the inaugural New Adventures Choreographer Award.
He has since worked internationally as a freelance dancer and choreographer, making work for his own company, EDge, Verve, Scottish Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Opera Graz and National Ballet of Chile. Matthew Bourne has described James as "one of the UK’s most promising choreographic talents", and Time Out magazine named him one of the future faces of dance.
James is a Work Place artist at The Place and an Associate Artist at DanceEast.
When you were a child, were there ways of moving about or using your body that made you particularly happy?
I was obsessed with Riverdance. That's my first memory of dance: watching the Riverdance video on repeat and always learning the girl’s role. I thought she was fab, the way she flew around.
Was there a particular dance or theatre show you saw that made you want to become a dancer yourself?
I was very fortunate that I was taken to see a lot of shows, mainly musicals or big shows. My first dance show was Riverdance and that blew me away: the scale of it really grabbed me. Until I was about 15 I wanted to be a musical theatre performer, but then I saw Linear Remains, a big group piece by Rafael Bonachela for Rambert, and it had the same effect as Riverdance. The scale of it, the energy of it, made me want to do contemporary, no question.
Has that love of scale affected the work you make now?
At school I just wanted to make big shows, but having to work with budgets has forced me to make a duet – and I've discovered something that I love. I always loved partner work but in the context of something bigger; I was terrified about just focusing on a duet, I liked having lots of dancers to hide behind, but now I love exposing the individual relationships.
Who are the dancers, choreographers or theatre-makers that you most admire?
Dancers: Lisa Welham, who I now work with. She danced for Rafael when I was training, I would take classes with them and watch their shows and I was always amazed by her. Two years after leaving school I needed a dancer and approached Lisa – and she said yes. Being able to work with someone I really respect is amazing, I feel very fortunate. Choreographers, the sky’s the limit! Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring has always stayed with me, for the unison and the power of it. In ballet you'll see a massive ensemble of 30, 40 dancers in perfect unison; you never get that in contemporary – but then Pina does it, and it's absolutely flawless. She made me see it can be done: obviously you need a massive budget, but that's always inspired me, having the ambition of bigger work.
Are there particular impressions or feelings you’d like people to take away from your work?
I always want people to think, on a very physical level, “Wow”, or: “How did they do that?” But I also want them to be moved, to think that was beautiful, or touching, or they really connected to the relationship or the story. I try to have both those aspects, to create dance that is accessible without having an in-your-face narrative, so that people who don't have any interest in dance can appreciate what the dancers are doing with their bodies and people who are looking for story can connect on that level as well. I don't want people to feel alienated by the work, or for them to feel that they don't understand. My mum and dad aren't arty people, so I always try and think about them, and make things clear enough so people feel that they get it.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
I've had quite a few. Hofesh Shechter said something along the lines of: it's like climbing a mountain, and only you can climb it. You've got to put the driving force in to get to the top, because no one can carry you up. I thought that was really good advice. When I was at secondary school, I was lucky: we had a lot of professionals come in and work with the youth companies I was in, who told us about the reality of being a dancer or choreographer. I've always had a really clear understanding that you have to work hard, be as versatile as you can, and be nice to people – because at the end of the day, no one wants to work with an arsehole. That's the advice I give now: be versatile, and be nice to people.
Is there someone – a non-dancer – that you’d love to go out dancing with?
Beyonce. I would pack it all in right now to go and be her dancer. If she's reading this, I'd love to choreograph for you B, OK?
You started as a dancer; what's the balance for you now between dancing and choreography?
Since winning the New Adventures Choreographer award in 2012 it's mainly been choreography. That shift happened quite fast, maybe sooner than I expected. Sometimes I miss dancing – but actually, I just go to class and that's my fix done. I don't need to perform, I can dance in the studio.
What makes you happy? And unhappy?
Well, Beyonce makes me very happy. If I'm struggling in the studio, we'll put on Beyonce and dance around for five minutes, and that's me cheered up. Equally, musicals make me very happy: I've got a total inner musical-theatre demon, and would love to choreograph for them. What makes me unhappy: I have very high standards as a choreographer and expect people to work to those high standards, so when people don't it gets me down. And I find it difficult when this becomes a job – for me, or for the people working with me. I do this because it's what I love doing; yes, I get paid for it now, which is amazing, but I really love doing it, and that's what drives me. If I don't have any personal investment in it, or I'm just going through the motions, that makes me unhappy.
How do you make sure that devoting yourself to something you love isn’t then self-indulgent?
I'm really aware of my responsibility to create things people want to watch, to make something that can generate audience and income and build the dance economy. I'm all for entertainment: I like to be entertained, to be excited by what I'm watching, inspired by what I'm watching, moved by what I'm watching – and also challenged by what I'm watching and provoked by what I'm watching. That's where my company's aims come from: to move, to inspire, to entertain.
Outside of dance, what inspires you?
Can I say Beyonce again?
Your answer to every question can be Beyonce.
It usually is. If in doubt, Beyonce. But it's for good reasons as well: the reason she inspires me, or the Beyonce product inspires me, is that everything is thought about and it's a cohesive show. The lighting is amazing, the choreography is amazing, she's an amazing performer and singer: every aspect is really thought about and detailed and integral to it. That's something I feel really passionate about in my shows as well, I try to think about the whole picture, the whole atmosphere. Other things that inspire me: my family, they've always been very supportive and pushed me to aspire to do my best. When I wanted to go to dance school early they said no, finish your study, and I've felt grateful for that. And good music inspires me: if I'm feeling stuck, I just need music to get me up and going.
What music – apart from Beyonce – do you dance to when you’re not working?
At work I've danced to everything from cheesy 1970s hits to Tchaikovsky. When I'm out dancing, give me top 40 and I'm happy.
What does being part of Work Place mean to you?
It's amazing to have a London base – I trained at the London Contemporary Dance School, and it feels very much like home to me, rehearsing here feels very familiar and safe. Work Place has given me a lot of support in the creation of work, I can bounce thoughts off the team and having that extra sounding board is amazing. And the weekend residencies for all of the associates are always so inspiring. It's rare to sit down with other choreographers like that – the weekends bring up a lot of questions and shared feelings.