Walking into Battersea Arts Centre to watch the evening performance of James Cousins Company’s first large scale immersive experience We Are As Gods, I was unsure what to expect.
As we queued in the entrance hall waiting for our tickets to be checked, a group of dancers dressed in white stood frozen in a tableau between two marble statues. Upon having our tickets checked, we were then told we had free rein of the building: we were free to explore and see what we might find…
Battersea Arts Centre was the perfect venue in this respect. The building is huge and offers a variety of room sizes all connected through labyrinthine corridors. This meant that audiences could switch from watching ensemble performances with around forty dancers in the Great Hall to watching more intimate duets and solos in the upper rooms of the centre.
Sometimes the twisting corridors were unnerving to navigate alone: was this part of the building actually open to audiences? Would I be led into the basement of the centre and never be able to get out? But, it was also exciting and satisfying to work out how all the winding passages connected with each other and to find those rooms that fewer audience members seemed to have discovered – in particular these included performances in the attic and basement rooms of the centre. Watching the duets and solos in these rooms almost felt as though one had discovered an exclusive performance.
It was difficult to work out whether there was a narrative connecting the performances across the various rooms of the centre. The performance seemed to commence at the grand staircase: the ensemble dancers, dressed in white, had gathered at the staircase, and then a procession of dancers in gold – the lead dancers – entered wearing elaborate feathered headdresses which they handed over to the ensemble dancers. As the dancers dispersed, the audience had various options: you could follow the ensemble dancers into the Great Hall or follow the lead dancers into the upper buildings of the centre. Eventually, all the dancers assembled in the Great Hall, reuniting the dispersed audience, and performed a group number before the audience was invited to join in the dancing for an after-party hosted by GAIKA.
While I struggled to follow or emotionally connect with any uniting narrative, I was entranced by James Cousins’ choreography – particularly how specific movements were repeated across routines in the various dance spaces – and was blown away by the power, precision and sensitivity of the dancers. In particular, my favourite ensemble routine was a samba-esque routine in the Great Hall led by Amy Hollinshead which involved the dancers interacting with the audience as they moved around us. Meanwhile, my favourite duet was between Alethia Antonia and Matt Sandiford in the Great Hall which involved them wearing woollen jumpers which they stretched and swapped between them.
A shout-out should also go to set and costume designer Jasmine Swan who evoked a magical atmosphere in the various rooms of Battersea Arts Centre. This included designing a room with a massive lit-up cube in its centre; another room filled with balloons; another room with AstroTurf on its floor and a neon sign on its wall saying, ‘This grass would be greener if you didn’t keep treading on it’ and a room filled with smoke. While the performance might have been devoid of a uniting narrative, Swan’s design created distinctive contrasting moods in each of the rooms which effectively took the audience on an emotional journey as they followed the dancers around.
Altogether, We Are As Gods was a fantastic showcase of the skill of the James Cousins Company dancers. Setting this production in Battersea Arts Centre meant you were often less than a metre away from the dancers – sometimes even catching them for a private performance. The fact that you have to follow the dancers through dark winding corridors and staircases meant the performance had limited accessibility. If you are able to get a ticket for this currently sold-out performance, be prepared to walk a lot and be curious to explore the depths of the iconic Battersea Arts Centre building.
We Are As Gods played at Battersea Arts Centre from 6th-10th October. Find out more here.