Liz Aggiss interviewed by Lauren Jury, Arnolfini Assistant Curator (Performance)
How do you feel that women are represented in contemporary performance today? How do you challenge this perception in your performance?
I stage a revolt against the mundane and banal through an appropriation of glamour and beauty. I make my body the stage on which I act out, and act up. I deliberately make a spectacle of myself de-familiarising the codings of femininity. I violate boundaries between being subject and object. I am also author so it’s my party and I cry if I want to.
Why does the use of humour and irony play the primary role in your performance?
Humour and irony are the best means to engage an audience with the serious propositions of the work. They provide a space and platform to invite the audience to be nudged into the challenges of the work. Laughter is a pleasurable response to elicit from an audience. Would I pay to be miserable and confused? Not knowingly!
Could you explain how you became interested in ‘Ausdruckstanz’ (an Expressionist dance phenomenon)?
My first experience of dance was in 1970 studying Rudolph von Laban’s Modern Educational Dance. I went to New York in 1980 and discovered Hanya Holm – formerly student and company member of Mary Wigman the German Expressionist dancer/choreographer, who was incidentally formerly demonstrator/apprentice for Laban – teaching composition and improvisation at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Theatre Lab. I trained with Nik, Murray and Hanya there, and in Colorado Springs. Returning to the UK I unearthed Valeska Gert, German grotesque dancer/cabaret artist, whilst researching female dancers from the pre and interwar years. Inspired I made Grotesque Dancer in 1986. Following a performance, the dance critic Julia Pascal insisted I meet Hilde Holger – formerly student/company member with Gertrud Bodenwieser in Vienna. Meeting her was like coming home. I studied with her in London until her death in 2001. Through chance, opportunity, research, belligerence and a passion for an expressive and grotesque dance, I found these European art forms that suited my temperament, my body, and me. These women were inspirational survivors who dared to be who they were. They now act as my mentors from beyond the grave. Their uncompromising words still ring in my ears; Hanya uttering ‘nobody home’ as she watched yet another vacant dancer cruise across space, and Hilde on seeing mega dance cheese, barking ‘I don’t teach kitsch, leave now!’. Who could fail to be unmoved?
Why have you created an homage to the artists that have influenced your performance practice? What are your thoughts on re-enacting or remaking an archival performance?
My personal lineage, former teachers and ongoing research has given me a context and language to create work. My teachers, Hilde Holger 1905-2001, a solo Ausdruckstanz artist from Vienna, and Hanya Holm 1893-1992, Mary Wigmans right hand woman sent to New York during WW2 to set up the Wigman school and lead a new generation of dancers, are carriers of culture. Both were inspirational dance educators and specific in their apporach. Hilde taught me four of her solo dances from 1920’s and 30’s. Simple, specific, brief and moving they say all that needs to be said. I carry her lineage. My interest in dance and performance is sustained by this era of research and by recovering bodies from libraries. Work was not documented then in the way we understand it now, and little remains except scraps. I like to indulge myself in these ‘scraps’ and in doing so I am looking to create a legacy to retain, revise, fictionalise lost histories and reinform dance in the light of the past, and bring these individual predominantly female artists to the attention of contemporary audiences. It provides a commentary on their history through recovery, though I am wholly aware that this is shrouded by my position as a post modern mature feminst dancing body. I am like a vulture feeding off these resources, so I could call myself a carrion of culture. And since I am seen as having a very British humour in dance I could be viewed as a bit of a carry-on up the dance culture….. the results of my reconstructions are never quite what they seem.
Your work is often referred to as ‘anarchic’; do you feel this is a good representation of your performances?
You know, every good artist needs strap line, a good marketing tool. I am not sure if I said I was anarchic or critics said it? I said I was maverick, which suits well, and that being unclassifiable and dodging categorization was a full time job….I also said I was un-disciplined meaning I was disciplined at working across disciplines. You see the conundrum in asking this question! As an artist you can steer your world but there are many others out there who like to have a finger in your pie! Steady missus! Is it a good representation? Well come and see Survival Tactics and make your own mind up! My intention is to make interesting challenging work not to shock audiences……the problem is audiences get shocked if they bring prior expectations to the table and since I fall under the category dance, I suspect some audiences might be puzzled. My job is to keep challenging expectations as to what dance is and can be. I was never the touchy feely, contacty, grey sweat pant sort of a gal and also I prefer to work alone. I loathe being touched, rolled on, moved about by arbitrary improvisers, or being lifted. I was surprised at the conservatism and the polarised response of dance audiences when I made Grotesque Dancer in 1986, bearing in mind it was the back end of punk. Incidentally I was also called uncompromising, clearly a BAD thing for a woman to be. Baffling really, I just followed my instincts and made what I wanted to make. That’s the joy of being an artist. So hey ho, who’s laughing now…….35 years later, as I gallop into my 60th year, I am still out there doing it with brass knobs on.
How has your interest in British Music Hall inspired the performance?
I grew up in the 50’s, with radio as the main means of entertainment. My nana, as an east end working class woman, had been obsessed with music hall, her weekly treat from the drudge of factory work curling ostrich feathers for posh ladies hats, and she used to sing in my ear, quietly I might add, a whole range of music hall songs. These were gifts. So through a kind of memory osmosis I have both fascination and knowledge of music hall. She also enjoyed a good old knees up and a glass of stout with the vicar. Having seen archive footage of these performers and being an Essex girl myself I recognise a fair bit of knees up going on! I did not see TV until I was 11 and many of those music hall performers had moved onto the TV varity shows; Max Miller, Max Wall, George Carl whom I fell for in a big way. I also have a direct familial lineage to early music hall and performance in my great great Auntie Flo aka Marjorie Irvine. All this inspired me to research artists from this era. The first company I had in 1980, The Wild Wigglers a visual comedic cabaret trio, took its inspiration from the music hall dancers Wilson Keppel and Betty. I still study Eccentric Dance in London with Barry and Joan Grantham. It would be folly not to include reference to these artists in my performance Survival Tactics, since they are my raison d’etre.
You have quite a few costume changes during the performance, how symbolic is the use of clothing to your work?
Visuality is key to my work. The costumes are not symbolic. They are integral to the concept of the work and are embedded into the initial research, development and choreography. And as every good girl knows, there is no point in going out and dancing a step until you know what to wear to get attention.
Have you performed at or visited Arnolfini before? If so what memories do you have of your time with us?
I did a weeks’ research and development at Arnolfini in 2009 with Charlotte Vincent, which culminated in the making of Double Vision. This opportunity was a pre curser to an ongoing productive collaboration. I loved the creative environment of the Arnolfini, the resource area, gallery space and location………..so important to get out of the confines of a black box theatre space and get some attitude readjustment. Memorable bit…sitting on the quay side, feet dangling over the water, post show, in informal conversation with the audience whilst nursing a substantial alcoholic beverage and applause ringing in my ears. What’s not to like?