If ever a character contained multitudes it is Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It. When she leaves the oppressive, restricting and increasingly dangerous environment of her uncle’s court and enters the Forest of Arden, she finds a space where many other Rosalinds are possible – even a male alter ego, Ganymede, who can trade witticisms with the best of them and (confusingly) offers to “play” Rosalind for the lovesick Orlando, in this way shaping her lover into the man she wants him to be.
The choreographer James Cousins finds in Rosalind a postfeminist heroine who cannot be encapsulated in just one body; three dancers (two female and one male) evoke her in his hour-long piece, created in Seoul as part of a British Council Shakespeare project.
The loose narrative structure of Rosalind is shaped by a soundtrack of Sabrina Mahfouz’s evocative poetry. “I make my beauty hardened … my boldness golden, my bravery outspoken, my voice deeper, and so people look beyond…” Jasmine Blackborow intones. This modern-day Rosalind is switched to the big city, and interestingly placed partly within an Asian perception of gender politics. She flickers between a salary-man-style drudgery and conformity, and giddy nightclub-like bacchanals amid pulsing lights in the stage’s transformative central space, marked out by the bare framework of a cube. But it’s when the four dancers are stripped down to flesh-coloured corsets and pants, divested of the easy markers of suits or dresses, that the real search for identity is undertaken.
Cousins, a protégé of Matthew Bourne, has created a physically demanding, full-throttle, robustly athletic choreography. His duet between Chihiro Kawasaki’s Rosalind and Georges Hann (who represents an Orlando figure) is a roiling, grappling coming together of bodies where Hann is supported as much by Kawasaki as she is by him, and in which the violence slowly ramps up, making starkly clear the issue of who “owns” the female body. Significantly, this happens outside the “Arden” space; when they move inside that cube, Heejung Kim’s “other” Rosalind sits on Kawasaki’s shoulders, almost as a soothing, healing presence trying to bring peace and understanding, although soon (outside again) Kim is being flung between a suited Hann and Inho Cho – the third, male Rosalind – and forced into a dress. Meanwhile, Kawasaki has to struggle to be free of a writhing, suffocating Hann and Kim, who wind themselves around her and send her into extravagant back bends.
Clothes are pulled on and shucked off with increasing frequency as genders slip and slide. “I’m neither he nor she, just a person who chooses daily what to be,” Blackborow recites. And now it’s Cho’s turn to enact Rosalind’s duet with Hann, to take Kim on his/her shoulders, to struggle with Hann and Kim’s clutching embraces, all of which feels more fraught and urgent.
The unrelenting drive of the piece brings us to a point where all the dancers are hurtling across the stage, whirling and tumbling in an exhausting sequence (while still displaying a meticulous control). The cube frame, picked out by spotlights, tilts; Hann and Cho’s climactic, loving duet moves like melting wax; Rosalind’s defiant last statement – “You do not get to dress me any more” – resounds like a battle cry, as Kawasaki stands on a prostrate Hann. Cousins has made a bold, complex, intelligent and invigorating piece, one that takes some unpicking, but rewards the effort. It’s also a miracle of stamina.