Being There: Survival Tactics for the Anarchic Dancer

Feature in Issue 22-1 | Spring 2010

A three-way view of Survival Tactics for the Anarchic Dancer by Professor Liz Aggiss, as seen at British Dance Edition, Birmingham, January 2010.

Before: The Victorian Debating Chamber, Birmingham Council House. The space is grandly intimate. The stakes are high with a competitive schedule. This is not a fully functioning theatre. I have only a follow spot and a big voice. The technician sits in a cupboard unable to see me. The performing space is snug. The audience will sink into plush leather and seek diversions of marble, wood, plinths, drawers and hidden speakers and from the knee down I am obscured. I have multiple narratives, asides, and a legion of technical cues to remember.

During: I am on red alert. Ovation on entrance. I navigate the script, multiple costumes and props; go on- and off-piste; and time the asides with room to manoeuvre. I see full audience commitment with only two non-starters. I make no attempt to reel them in. I air my professorial research and all that academically sails in her. I acknowledge the tensions of being both Professor and Liz Aggiss. I am not thinking. It is intuition, reflex and experience that gives space. They say I am a ‘one-off ’ with ‘grand dame’ status. After 30 maverick dance years this mature, fleshy, subversive body has a reputation to sustain and a will to survive. Ovation on exit. Survival fulfilled. Liz Aggiss

We know it is a showcase, we know the limitations of the space (from photos and discussion), we know the fee and have seen the delegate list and the programme. It was an invitation to attend; we will work it like the old troopers (and troupers) that we both are.

We arrive at 10am as scheduled. The Council technician had arrived at 8am and is now gone. BDE’s people do sterling work on the set-up. There could be great opportunities to play with this space; with the in-house speaker system, chair-side amplification, the balcony and the thrones. The table mic is useful, and we put our little hand-made booklets in the drawers for a late surprise. They are free. They took hours to make. They are not costeffective. We hope they will be treasured.

Delegates are bleeped in through bar-codes on the tickets. This gives me time to read their names, spot who might be useful – the one from Ireland, Brussels, the Italians?

We are in daylight, but it’s dark enough for the films to be seen. The sun moving across the high windows distracts a little, but Liz keeps the audience focused. The two new film sequences go down well. As does the new song with the washboard tie. There is laughter. There are some who just don’t get it and sit with their heads in their hands.

As the weekend progresses, talk permeates and word goes round that Survival Tactics was unlike anything else on offer. Liz is invited to do a range of things: choreograph youth dance companies, give her Performance Lecture at Stormont Castle, go to Damascus.

Opportunities will grow from this outing. We have navigated Birmingham.
Lisa Wolfe (Manager)

At about the time I was getting born, a 28-year-old Liz Aggiss was discovering dance. About the same age she was then, I’m now discovering dance myself. Making this a wonderfully circular kind of experience.

I saw many shows during my weekend at British Dance Edition and Liz Aggiss stood out for a number of reasons. Her practice rejects something which seems to be an unquestioned aspect of most other dance work I have seen, and embraces a humour which seems elsewhere to be missing. The thing she rejects is beauty for its own sake: so much dance involves being beautiful and being seen to be beautiful. You demonstrate your ability, your athletic skill and your grace; the audience duly gazes upon you with admiration (unless they are dancers themselves in which case they are busy finding fault with your technique).

With this performance lecture, delivered through numerous costume changes, video homages to her dance mentors (real and imagined), amidst spoken sections and guerrilla dances which re-create ‘mercifully short’ dance works from the early twentieth century, Liz Aggiss rejects both superficial beauty and the gaze which consumes and cheapens. Instead she opts for the playful savagery of the true bouffon who embraces faults, failures and discordance, and whose aim is to make her audience laugh until they realise that they have been lying to themselves. With a litany of injuries, grimaces, awkward poses, alternating between self-aggrandisement and self-deprecation, she is pointing towards the hollowness of the work and the audience which seeks only beauty without truth – and to the true power of dance to embody and communicate.
Ed Rapley

For further information on the artist see

British Dance Edition 2010 took place in Birmingham 3–6 February 2010.

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Issue 22-1
p. 34 - 35