Dance reviews: James Cousins Company: Rosalind | Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Material Men Redux

James Cousins' Rosalind, based on Shakespeare's heroine, moves between male and female roles.
James Cousins' Rosalind, based on Shakespeare's heroine, moves between male and female roles.
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There may not be an abundance of strong female characters in Shakespeare’s canon, but Rosalind from As You Like It is certainly one of them. Drawn to the character’s confidence and diplomacy, choreographer James Cousins – a rising star on the British dance scene – has created a homage to the 16th century heroine.

James Cousins Company: Rosalind ****

Shailesh Bahoran and Sooraj Subramaniam bring a disturbing story to life

Shailesh Bahoran and Sooraj Subramaniam bring a disturbing story to life

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance: Material Men Redux ****

Both Tramway, Glasgow

In Rosalind, part of this year’s Dance International Glasgow festival, four dancers and a large cubic construction of illuminated poles share the space. Not your traditional Forest of Arden, admittedly, but gender, not geography, is Cousins’ priority here.

Shakespeare’s Rosalind dressed as a man to keep herself safe and blend in – and 400 years later, Cousins was struck by how some women still feel the pressure to dress or act in a masculine way to get what they need. So his Rosalind moves with fluidity between female and male, accompanied by three dancers playing versions of herself and love interest, Orlando. Costumes are danced into and thrown off, duets are gentle and tender, then tough and aggressive.

As a piece of storytelling, it can be hard to follow – but as a work of athletic, wonderfully complex choreography, it draws you in and keeps you there. As Cousins’ movement cleverly morphs in line with Rosalind’s current state, Sabrina Mahfouz’s thoughtful poetry, also exploring gender and conformity, weaves perfectly in and out of the score.

I suspect I wasn’t the only one watching Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Material Men Redux who was unaware of the inhumanity behind her source material. With slavery in the British Empire outlawed in 1833, plantation owners suddenly found themselves without a workforce. Enter thousands of young men and women from India, duped into contracts in British, French and Dutch colonies, with high mortality rates both on the long, arduous journeys and on the plantations themselves.

Both Shailesh Bahoran and Sooraj Subramaniam, the two exquisite dancers who bring this work to life, can trace their heritage back to these 19th century migrant workers, a fact which only adds to an already poignant experience, for both them and us.

Wrapped tightly in a piece of long, orange silk, the men start the show in claustrophobic confinement. From there, the cloth turns into various different things: a body of water; a vehicle dragged doggedly along by one of them, while the other waves his hand royally and items of clothing denoting class hierarchy.

Interspersed with archive photos of migrants, and spoken word facts about their violent demise, the duo’s movement is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.

Propelled by energetic live music, courtesy of the superb Smith Quartet, Bahoran and Subramaniam bring their own styles (hip hop and Bharatanatyam respectively) to bear, and it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off them.

On a purely aesthetic level, Jeyasingh and the dancers have created a work that demands our attention – the fact that it also bears witness to lives cheated and lost makes it all the more powerful.