Written by Chantelle Davison
Freelance choreographer James Cousins is commissioned all over the world to create dance work. We spoke with him about his influences and successes, the reality of a career in the arts, and what we can expect next from James Cousins Dance Company.
With hindsight, it was clear from a young age that James was destined not just to be a performer, but a choreographer. Whether he was trying to learn the moves to River Dance in front of the TV or choreographing “little shows for the family, starring my sister and my cousin”, it’s clear that both the act and arrangement of dance has always been a big part of his life.
“From the age of about 15 I was really clear that I was going to be a dancer,” James explained. “My family has been very supportive from the start. They drove me to every dance class and when I wanted to go to dance school they told me they always believed in me”. That belief, it seems, was certainly well placed, with James’ career going from strength to strength since graduating dance school.
In 2012, James won Matthew Bourne’s ‘New Choreographer’ Award and was mentored for a year by Matthew, who had a big influence on Cousin’s sense of narrative. “The influence Matt had on my work was less aesthetic,” James explained. “He showed me how to really connect with audiences.”
According to James, Bourne’s mentoring style was a perfect fit as “he didn’t want to mold me into a Mini-Matthew”, but rather appreciated the differences in their work and helped James to make his own style stronger. Generous with his time and advice, Bourne helped James to understand how to tell stories through dance. Once, James recalled, when working in the studio with one dancer and a light, Bourne recommended they “try it again with the dancer focused solely on the light, or a fixed spot in the room”, and everything shifted within that piece for James, “Suddenly this whole story appeared and I realised it had been there all along; there was an emotional journey and clarity to it.”
There’s no doubt that a career in the arts takes a lot of passion and drive, and James admits that, “being a choreographer is definitely a difficult career. You have to be the sort of person that’s happy in a freelance career. If you’re the sort of person that needs a paycheck at the end of every month, or if your main priorities are a big house and nice car, this is the wrong career for you.”
As Company Director James has had to adapt quickly to non-creative tasks from learning to manage budgets to submitting funding applications. Having received no formal business training, he’s absolutely of the opinion that schools need to do more to prepare students for the realities of self-employment. James explained, “I’m very fortunate to work with a brilliant producer, and we’ve gone through that process of learning together, but they could at least have shown us how to do a tax return!”
As with any freelance career, there are times when projects are back to back, which James admits can be overwhelming, and other times when things are quiet, but his positive attitude seems a good fit for a career with so much uncertainty: “It’s incredibly important to embrace the downtime. It means having the space to think creatively and refresh your passion.”
Passion certainly isn’t something James lacks; he’s a huge advocate for continuous improvement and training, believing there is always something new to learn. “I think it’s really important that study doesn’t stop when you leave dance school,” James explained.
“There’s this idea that you do your three years and boom, you’re a dancer!”
The reality is quite different, and James is eager to make sure young people pursuing a career in dance and choreography know what they’re getting themselves into. “The best career advice I was ever given was brutal honesty: The level of competition and the work required”, James explained. “I’m grateful I knew from a young age how hard it would be, that I would need to keep developing and pushing myself. You have to be the sort of person that wants to do that to succeed.”
A strong believer in having an open creative process when starting a new project, James encourages his dancers to contribute and share their ideas. The key is choosing a team that shares the same passion and drive. “If I have the right people around me, the show will happen and we’ll create something great”, James explained. “Our ideas collectively are far stronger than mine alone.”
This collaborative style is a central theme when James talks about his work, and an important part of his process. He explains, “I’m always really inspired by the dancers in the studio with me. They shape the work that I produce as I draw on their individuality and their skills.”
It’s clear this young choreographer absolutely loves what he does from the way he talks about his job, his favourite place in the world being “in a studio surrounded by inspiring and creative people, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
This passionate and adaptable attitude no doubt explains the ease with which James transitions from working on huge theatre productions to choreographing music videos, right through to dancing in feature films, building a remarkably impressive resume before even entering his thirties.
Refreshingly though, success doesn’t seem to have gone to his head, as James is a man clearly grounded in his work and focused on entertaining his audiences. When asked when he knew he had ‘made it’, James laughed off the idea of ‘making it’ as a goal or destination, explaining, “For me it’s about making work with people that can hopefully inspire, move or entertain”, before quickly adding with a laugh, “Choreographing for Beyoncé! That’s when I’ll know I’ve really made it!” And frankly, the way James’s career is going, it doesn’t seem like a stretch!