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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Outsider performance
Animated, Spring 2001. Learning difficulties - the politically correct, bog standard, catchall definition - a handy little clutch bag into which we can safely stash those who are outside and disabled or unable to operate within acceptable speeds. But suppose we redefine performers with learning difficulties as outsider performers? Might this contribute to a positive reassessment of a marginalized performance genre? Liz Aggiss speaks frankly
In the world of visual art the role of the outsider artist, ie. one that works outside the normal traditions is rapidly gaining acceptance. The relationship between these outsider artists and performance can be seen as significant. Outsider artists are often untrained in the established formal sense and make their direct and powerful art from an inner compulsion with no regard for commercial convention or fashion.

Outsider art is increasingly recognised and accepted as representing the purest and most direct form of artistic creation. Patrons by their sheer determination and foresight have bequeathed a legacy to ensure outsider art is supported, and this impulsive creativity is no longer marginalized. The terminology and theoretical discourse on the subject of outsider traditions, from Naive and Primitive Art to Art Brut, ensures outsider art can flourish within accepted critical domain.

Thus, the term outsider is one of positive affirmation. For outsider artists the audience is witness to the work alone. The work can be contextualised within a recognisable gallery space and championed by a curator, and the artist is not present. It is clear that patronage and opportunity can support understanding of this unconventional aesthetic.

Outsider performance has no such champions. Can this be attributed to complications that arise from the relationship with an audience who must focus directly on the performers and their varying forms of learning difficulties and special needs, for example their irregular physicality, guaranteed idiosyncratic behaviour and unconventional performance language and skill base? And this is communicated even before the audience can engage with the work itself. Like outsider artists, the outsider performer has no notion of a right or wrong way, a regular or irregular aesthetic, in fact no such inhibitions but is simply engaged in the act of performing to the best of his or her ability, revelling in the opportunity of creativity and visibility. Outsider performance needs to find champions, critics, and an appropriate supporting language to secure its survival in the artistic marketplace. Outsider art, though appealing to a small and enthusiastic audience at least has found its niche. The best that is on offer for outsider performance is to lump it within conventional categories or community work and hope the notions of equal opportunities surface, and suffice.

Working with outsider performers since 1989, Billy Cowie and I have identified an artistic approach and choreographic method that is not a million miles from our practice with our company Divas Dance Theatre. We are committed to a choreographic process, artistic direction and critical awareness that explores the power of the total performer and celebrates difference. Personalities and strengths are forefronted through a working process that identifies and attempts to locate a relevant platform for the individual, whatever their experience, physical and emotional differences, ego, sexuality and awareness. We achieve this by binding the work composition with vivid visual and physical identity, the integration of live music, text, humour and film. In fact, in all our work, there is always a theme that can offer strong visual production, social and political significance, and room for individual expression. In 1989, we developed a relationship with Carousel; a creative arts organisation based in Brighton set up to work with people with learning difficulties and made the award winning Banda Banda with their integrated company. A year later, coincidentally inspired by the outsider art collection at La Fabuloserie in France, we made La Soupe in collaboration with Carousel and Divas. This experience cemented a working process and methodology, which proved successful enough to reap subsequent initiatives. The performers were invited to share aspects of their lives and these conversations were recorded, sampled, carved and embedded into a score set by Billy and sung live by Banghra singer Parmjit Pammi. This material was used as inspiration for the choreographic content and the piece went on to win the Alliance and Leicester Award for the most innovative theatre work in the Brighton Festival.

This process was revealing and surprising. Often the diction was unclear and the words did not immediately make sense, but sometimes, just sometimes, it was pure poetry, an insight to a wonderful world of unselfconscious imagination. Put into the context of the performance it became a poignant reminder to the audience of the place of the individual and the importance of opportunity:

It's rude to point
It is
It's rude, rude to point
Cos it's not very nice
People don't like it
They are getting annoyed
Tell them to get off me.(1)

Outsider artists construct their monuments of self-belief, and ensure they are testaments to the idea that the ordinary can be made extraordinary, that the discarded 'rubbish' has a value and a potential for a different aesthetic. So, we processed all the ordinary, simple, obvious mundane questions, the normally throw away discarded remarks in order to create an extra-ordinary product. In fact, we asked Colin Richardson, outside performer: 'If you could make a dance, any dance on any subject, what kind of dance would you like to do'? His slow and thoughtful manner was a testament to his creativity and clarity:

Thinking dance
Sitting there thinking
Sitting down dance
Sit down
Smoking dance
Smoke a cigarette
That's it
Thinking dance!(2)

Colin's response revealed an exciting take on the world - exposed an irony which floated in like magic - a creativity which left us at times gob smacked, and prompted further questions: 'If you made soup, what would it be?'

Dog soup, rat soup, dog soup,
rat soup, dog, dog dog soup,
dog soup, magic soup.(3)

Making work with outsider performers is one thing, finding venues and an audience is quite another. Because of the recognition we enjoyed with our company Divas, we were fairly well placed to achieve this almost impossible task and helped secure mainstream professional touring opportunities for the work Banda Banda at the ICA. Our desire to continue to break boundaries and to further develop our choreographic processing led to the creation of La Petite Soupe for The Place's Spring Loaded season, in which two outsider performers were integrated into Divas Dance Theatre, 'using their words as a kind of narrative, Aggiss and Cowie somehow dodged a minefield of mawkish sentimentality it could have been all to right-on, too hand on heart sincere, but never once were the special performers at the heart of the piece treated as anything less than fellow human beings. That shouldn't need pointing out, but this isn't a perfect world now, is it?'(4)

Securing press and critical recognition is complex. Last year we rekindled our choreographic relationship with Carousel and their company High Spin to make The Surgeons Waltz. Local press were enthusiastic 'the show will make you laugh, cry and clap furiously for more.'(5) But despite the audience response, and a massive marketing and press campaign, no critics from the national press reviewed the work. Perhaps this is due to limited space in the national press for special needs. Or could it be that finding a critical language, and we are back to the minefield of language now, is a more pertinent part of the debate? There is little context and reference in which to frame criticism. The critical language can be inflammatory. Should the work be viewed with a special set of principles in mind, and what about the sympathy factor? A range of observations was received regarding artistic vision, concept and simplicity of the work. The audience was identified for not being mainstream, and the annotations dwelt on the difficulties of distinguishing between those performers with disability and those without. There were no references to the social and political undercurrents of the theme. And not having a recognisable mainstream audience seemed to somehow negate the work. Ironically, or is it tragically, 'mainstream' contemporary dance audiences are notoriously made up of a dance clique of friends, family, students and people 'in the know'. Such interpretations sadly reveal an alarming lack of critical, social and political awareness. Similarly, the potential for a potent critical debate was sidestepped following transmission of our BBC Dance for Camera. Beethoven in Love featured outsider performer Tommy Bayley in the role of one of the worlds most illustrious musicians, himself often identified as an outsider.

Billy and I owe our lineage to early experimentation in the world of alternative and cult cabaret and have focused over the years on an uncompromising choreographic and performance style. This together with a stylistic and economic use of space and choreographic language, remains at the forefront of our work and indirectly has placed us in the position of outsider within the dance world. Thus, it is a rare treat to work with High Spin: kindred spirits, extraordinarily interesting and always surprising. Clearly, without patronage, critical awareness, successful press coverage, access to training, without opportunities or even equal opportunities, outsider performance will remain largely invisible, firmly in its marginalized place.

Outsider vision is raw but nonetheless important. I asked outsider performer Joyce Francis what was important to her:

I got a big bag,
My wash bag
Does hold a lot
Bath cubes, mousse, talcum powder,
hair lacquer
Put on yer 'ead
My wash bag, my wash bag

Liz Aggiss, artistic director (with Billy Cowie), Divas Dance Theatre, and programme leader, BA Hons, University of Brighton.

Contact Carousel and High Spin on +44(0)1273 234734 or email

1. Lyrics from La Soupe by outsider performer Debbie Harkin in collaboration with Billy Cowie, 1990
2. Lyrics from La Soupe by outsider performer Colin Richardson in collaboration with Billy Cowie, 1990
3. Lyrics from La Soupe by outsider performer Joyce Francis in collaboration with Billy Cowie, 1990
4. Author unknown, Warmth in the Soup, Hampstead and Highgate Express, March 1991
5. Phillips, Jakki, Dances Spin Doctors, Evening Argus, Brighton, March 2000

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001