When North Carolina passed its anti-transgender bathroom laws, citing concerns about ‘privacy’, Laverne Cox cut straight to the heart of the matter. The laws aren’t about privacy, but are rather an attack on a trans person’s right to occupy space. “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. To occupy space, to have the chance to command it, to simply exist: this is the right that trans people were denied.
‘Space’ – it means so much more than literal physical parameters, although this is one mode of measurement. When we talk about ‘safe spaces’, we mean much more than a nice quiet room; when we take about people who take up ‘too much space’, we don’t always or only mean that they’re spreading their crap all over the desks outside your office. And when James Cousins Company’s new piece Rosalind opens with Jasmine Blackborow reading Sabrina Mahfouz’s poetry, and the line, “Here is a space, a space to make. I make my beauty hardened,” echoes over the audience, we know that what is being referred to is not just the literal neon cube in the middle of the stage, within and without of which are two dancers in identical flesh-coloured underwear that recall Elizabethan corsetry. Here is Rosalind, undressed, ready to put on the clothes that are most appropriate for the space she’s currently occupying – her uncle’s court, or the Forest of Arden, as Rosalind, or as her male alter ego Ganymede, taking up the space of the masculine and the feminine with equal art.
Rosalind, commissioned by the British Council as part of Shakespeare Lives, takes its cue from As You Like It. You don’t need much familiarity with the play to get something out of Rosalind, but it is helpful to know that Cousins’s Rosalind is played by three dancers: Chihiro Kawasaki as the ‘main’ Rosalind, Heejung Kim as her ‘original’ female side and Inho Cho as Ganymede/Rosalind. Georges Hann is Orlando, Rosalind’s love, although to be honest the big love story at the heart of As You Like It (and, well, the whole storyline) isn’t especially prioritised in Rosalind. The duets between Orlando and the various Rosalind incarnations, with their tumbling, twining lifts and arresting games of balance and support, are really more about Rosalind learning about the ways her body can occupy space to redefine her role in it, than they are conventional romantic duets.
Women lift men with a genderless confidence; Hann and Cho are dainty and tender with one another; Kawasaki and Kim drag and climb over one another’s bodies with a truculent energy, and in one memorable sequence take it in turns to sit on one another’s shoulders, bend backwards and roll down into a handstand, only to flip round and take the other on her shoulders. Cousins’s choreography is attention-grabbing, sending the superlatively graceful and expressive Kawasaki into deep backbends and whiplash spins, and demanding an immense energy and stamina from the ensemble as a whole.
The question of space and its occupation comes up again and again. One of the sequences inside the neon box is what I can only describe as a disco scene, a tightly contained bacchanal that is thrown off as soon as the performers leave the box – is this the only place they are safe, the only place they are free? (This isn’t a rhetorical question; I loved the frenetic energy and the glitzy phrasework but couldn’t understand what purpose it served.) Much of the contact work is rippling with a sense of push and pull, as Rosalind relearns her body’s roles and comes to terms with the multitudes contained within her, which can weigh her down or lift her up (quite literally).
Insook Choi’s costumes go a long way to helping ground the audience, with pantsuits representing a far binary of masculinity, wedding dresses representing a far binary of femininity, and cool velvet jackets with fringed skirts of tulle representing the blurring of gender and its adaptability. Clothes are forced on, pulled off, shrugged into and spun away as the performers perform an idea of gender. Sabrina Mahfouz’s poetry, which runs as a voiceover for the whole performance, also helps draw out these themes.
For all that it is narratively a little wish-wash, there’s no escaping the fact that Rosalind is gorgeous. Bold and dramatic, it’s an exciting take on a fascinating character and a jubilant, rewarding work.
For more information on Rosalind at The Place, click here.