James Cousins Company | In Search of Sanctuary | Review

Words by Katie Hagan

Although the pandemic has seized many aspects of the dance industry’s identity — physical touch, studio time, performance IRL — it has not destroyed its spirit. This is the premise of the short dance film/documentary In Search of Sanctuary conceived by choreographer James Cousins and photographer Camilla Greenwell. 

Four James Cousins Company dancers — Rhys, Jemima, Anna-Kay and Julie — take it in turns to highlight how a dance stripped of artifice has been an important refuge over the past 11 months. 

Moving alone in nondescript indoor and outdoor locations, In Search of Sanctuary starts with Rhys’s story. For him dance was a form of therapy and release during the George Floyd and BLM protests, a fragile period for Black communities across the globe. Shrill violin music features here, playing on Rhys’s tension and tuning us to the next solo where Jemima speaks of her discomfort at being in unchartered dance territory. At the beginning of the pandemic it was challenging for Jemima to be away from the collective experience of the studio. Over time and through trusting her movement however, she explains she started to feel uplifted.

The movement at this stage of In Search of Sanctuary and indeed into Anna-Kay’s solo which follows is focussed on the upper body and face. This is somewhat refreshing considering the convention in contemporary dance is for the face to be a tabula rasa, blank and impersonal against the fire of the body.  

But times have changed. A dancer who was once lines, angles, technique — a silhouette — is at home in front of the camera wearing normal clothes. In In Search of Sanctuary dancers are talking, moving as they wish, being themselves. Could it be that what we have lost in terms of performance and studio time, we have gained in remembering dancers are human? What, then, it must feel like to come back to yourself after being morphed and contexualised as something else?

Anna-Kay articulates this sentiment in her solo. Over the past 11 months she’s remembered why she danced in the first place, and its connections with her roots. She rediscovered the joy that dance brings to her. Whilst this may sound cliché to some cynics, tread with care. Just remember that moment when you came to the realisation that you’d lost parts of yourself in something you’d loved.

In Search of Sanctuary’s final moment is with Julie whose story is more abstract than the others. She highlights how we shape our mindset through framing; through being thankful for each day or our good health. In Search of Sanctuary’s movement frame shifts here too, from the upper body to Julie’s nimble feet that become screwdrivers twisting into the floor.

In Search of Sanctuary’s tone is quietly empowering. Whilst there are moments that are dark and invoke trauma — Julie’s mention of entrapment and Rhys’s reference to the murder of the innocent George Floyd — all the stories quickly resume focus on what is positive. Whilst that is completely fine, the switches happen too prematurely. Things feel a little escapist, and this is something which rubs against the film’s authenticity: the home shoot, the idea of returning to oneself. Adding shade wouldn’t ruin the timbres of tranquility, it would provide more balance tonally, more context behind the trialling journey to sanctuary’s sweet haven whether it be in terms of financial worry, burn-out, malaise, perhaps disillusionment. These realities needed more fleshing out in the film.

With James Cousins’ ear for storytelling and Camilla Greenwell’s pellucid videography, I’d love to see In Search of Sanctuary manifest into a longer work. The film shoots out a beacon of light in times of great darkness and reminds us that there is more to dance than touring and studios — it is part of who we are as human beings.

Credits: Conceived by James Cousins and Camilla Greenwell. Featuring Rhys Dennis, Jemima Brown, Anna-Kay Gayle and Julie Ann Minaai. Film by Camilla Greenwell. Music by Torben Lars Sylvest. Produced by Hannah Gibbs. Image: Camilla Greenwell.