By Merilyn Jackson, for The Inquirer
April 1, 2014
Choreographer Niki Cousineau and the shadow of her designer husband Jorge Cousineau.
This is a love story. It’s also a dance story, one that began in Dresden, Germany, in 1994. Its middle is happening here inPhiladelphia, now. The lovers are award-winning artists, collaborators onstage and in real life – husband and wife Niki Cousineau and Jorge Cousineau, founders of the dance company Subcircle. Their new ensemble work All this happened, more or less, opens Thursday night at the Performance Garage. The story of their life and work together, its title is the opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. The novel’s key event is the World War II firebombing of Dresden in which 130,000 people died – bombings Jorge’s grandparents survived. And, like the novel’s time- and spacetraveling hero, “this new work weaves back and forth through time and place” Niki said at their studios in the Maas Building on North Randolph Street last week. “It’s kind of a retrospective, with the dancers calling out the years.” When Jorge was born in Dresden 43 years ago, his last name was Lehmann. Twenty years ago it was still Lehmann on the day Philadelphia’s touring Group Motion Dance Company -including Niki – was loading into a Dresden theater as he was leaving it.
“I was always interested in speaking English whenever I could,” he said. “So I said, ‘I can speak English, and who are you?’ And then that night I went to see the show. And what really struck me – you know when you’re 24 and you’re looking for some higher connection – I felt that the themes they were dancing were so familiar, yet they were from the other side of the world.” The company was performing to music by minimalist composer Arvo Pärt and he felt, with a young man’s hubris, that “I was one of the few people who knew Pärt’s music. They were dealing with things that were my innermost feelings and I found myself crying in the theater, thinking, “What the hell is going on?’”
He hung out with the company for the performance and the next day went to Berlin to take a workshop with them. He learned that he and Group Motion’s founder and director Manfred Fischbeck share a birthday. There followed many other associations, and because “of that initiation, I started working with dancers in town.” Niki recalls, “Jorge sent Manfred a tape of music” he had made for a Dresden dance company. Group Motion used it and was invited back to Dresden to perform it, and Manfred asked Jorge to be the company’s sound designer.
Jorge moved in with them in Hellerau, Dresden’s “garden city” district, where the founder of German Expressionism, choreographer Mary Wigman, had trained in the early 20th Century. “It was an amazing time,” Jorge said. “I don’t even remembersleeping, working all day and making music each night, and after every rehearsal I found myself sitting next to Niki. My hands would get all warm and I was thinking ‘I just want to touch you.’ So it was kind of like my body knew before I understood that I was in love.” “But then she had to leave and I was filled with emotion and I wanted to kneel down and thank somebody that we had met, and I had a vision of being with Niki and having kids with her.” Two years passed before they saw each other again, but by their second parting, they had affirmed their love. Within weeks of Niki’s return to Philadelphia, Jorge told her he was selling his belongings and coming to join her. When his three month visa expired, Niki went to Germany to marry him. That’s when Jorge Lehmann became Jorge Cousineau. He legally took Niki’s name “because,” he shrugged, “it made sense.”
Niki, now 44, had completed her degree at the University of the Arts in 1992 and the next year went to Germany to see her friends in Group Motion perform in Pottsdam. “Why aren’t I doing this?” she recalls thinking. “Making work?” After two months in Europe, she returned and began managing Group Motion while helping found and run the Kumquat dance collective. In 1997 she and Jorge launched Subcircle. Their work together and separately attracted funding, and each has won numerous awards and residencies. Niki was a Pew Fellow in 2007 and Jorge in 2011. Along the way, Jorge began collecting Barrymore Awards for his theater work as a sound and multimedia set designer – three so far. All this happened, more or less is part of the Philadelphia Dance Project season, directed by Terry Fox. She chose the work because she says the Cousineaus “will build an atmosphere that plays with the viewers ideas of what is real.”
Jorge will debut as an active performer this week, dancing onstage with his wife, Beau Hancock, Christy Lee, Scott McPheeters and Christina Zani. He’s designed a beautiful set – something like Bauhaus-goes-Gehry – that can be collapsed and then rebuilt as part of the process. Rosie Langabeer, the New Zealand transplant whose music is by now well-known to Philadelphia audiences, is creating the score. Jorge never envisioned himself dancing, but one vision he did have has come true: The Cousineaus have two children, Dahlia, 15, and Willem, 11, and live with them down the block from their studio. Unlike Vonnegut, who would say “So it goes,” this is just the happy middle of their story.