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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
The rough guide to reconstruction
Animated, Summer 1999. Standing the test of time? As we cruise towards the millennium many artists have identified a need to revisit and reconstruct their work. Liz Aggiss talks about the process of reconstruction, of revisiting politicised history as the chance to retain her story by allowing it to be aired to another public, and of how such work can have a new resonance informed by extensive performance experience
They say your past catches up with you. And so in 1999 I found myself back at that established hedonistic Mecca for youth, The Zap Club Brighton where in 1980, The Wild Wigglers had premiered. This visual dance cabaret act had emerged from an artistic dalliance with Billy Cowie, and here we were, sagging Wigglingmen in tow, straining against the same sweaty stripy yellow and black leotards and battered pointy hats, jumping up and down mercilessly. Why? Reconstruction; to construct or build again, recreate a lost or damaged original form, deduce from fragmentary evidence. To mark the end of an era, or the ear of an ender. Many Wiggler devotees staggered along to witness this compelling but hideous sight, maybe to marvel at gravity defying menopausal breasts, or tightly packed testes stuffed into mildewed lycra, or maybe to reorientate themselves from this fragmentary evidence of the past. Anyway, we wiggled, we believed we were jumping relentlessly, but in reality, 19 years on, we barely left the ground. Ironically, or is it tragically, I had not forgotten a single step, not one gasping grimace, not one tiny flicker of an eyelid. Revisiting this work identified how anarchic, original and formative this work had been and how it now shaped and informed the subsequent choreography Cowie and I made, and continue to make for myself as soloist and for our dance child, Divas. The audience who recaptured their history still loved it and begged for more, and sadly I loved it too but needed to sit down. And after this tremendous victory over memory and physicality, Retroclub night began in earnest, and I found myself side by side with some nice young people who wore very small spangly wangly psychedelic shift frocks, and raved their platforms off to pumped up Abba. And once again the irony of the evening was not lost.

Cruising towards 2000 it seems an appropriate place as any to relocate performance histories, to contextualise current performance practice, and to ask the question, has anything really changed? The issue of reconstruction in the case of the solo seminal work Grotesque Dancer from 1986 asks these questions, to myself as performer, and similarly to the audience. In 1986 this solo was a shocking, provocative presentation of femininity, made from an intuitive and impassioned performance position. It was created by Cowie and myself as driven Brighton based unfunded artists. It was made without respect to dreary dance cliches and it developed on from where The Wild Wigglers had left off. It deconstructed dance and the idea of the dancing body as solely interpretative object. I was now the subject in the work. Grotesque Dancer was aware of its context and was uncompromising. It politicised past and present. It divided critics, notably into gendered responses. In short it was a winner, like it or loathe it. Being author and performer brought responsibility and opportunity to invest in a new vision, and having an audience to share these ideas with was a luxury, so why waste the opportunity. Art is not about complacency. Some 13 years later, in April 1999, Grotesque Dancer was reconstructed for The Purcell Room. So now in post performance hindsight, what is the conclusion? Well, nothing much has changed; the work is still challenging, still provocative, still centrally unfunded and critics are still divided. It has stood the test of time, but it is not the same work. It was truthfully reconstructed but has a new resonance informed by extensive performance experience. Where it was amusing it is now deeply funny. Where it was emotional it is now emotive. Then, in 1986 I performed intuitively. Now I know what I am doing and how to do it. In short I can now objectify, manipulate audiences, tug the appropriate heart strings and tickle the laughter gland, and I can now make my age and my body with all its physical shortfalls, invest in the sentiment. Same tune different violin.

Talking of which, Die Orchidee im Plastik Karton made in 1989 for an all female Divas Dance Theatre Company was reconstructed in 1999 as part of the same Purcell Room double bill. This hilarious and biting satirical dance performance inspired by gender biased phrases from a BBC language lesson and using the sampled female voice: 'The orchid in the plastic carton is the flower for the ladies'. 'Intercity is the train for the men'. 'They come also with female secretaries, Dusseldorf is a very discreet town', was reconstructed specifically for male dancers. Why? Because in 1999 patriarchy requires a new satire, and in revisiting such politicised history the chance to retain herstory and sentiment requires new direction to sharpen the point. Complacency still remains unacceptable, and politically no dramatic changes have occurred; the critics remain on the whole witless and divided and the work continues to be challenging and provocative. Reconstruction therefore becomes a useful tool to theorise, to put into perspective current practice and contextualise process. It is also bloody good fun!

This was a year for consolidating practice through the demands of recreating original form. The most faithful prize must go to Transitions Dance Company for reconstructing Aggiss and Cowie's Bird in a Ribcage from 1995. Watching this four years on at The Bloomsbury Theatre, Cowie and I were aware that the piece has stood the test of time, of the persistent significance of the content, the need for interpretative maturity and the importance of the work within a diverse programme. Reconstruction had allowed our particular brand of dance choreography and performance to be aired to another public. They say good things come to those who wait. The opportunity to reconstruct confirms a place in history, affirms an artistic voice from an informed perspective, and gives respect to choreographers.

And finally, they say it is important to touch base. Having trained in an expressionist tradition with Hanya Holm, (she who continually muttered "nobody home" as yet another dancer frittered across her eyes), and her proteges Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, and having now determined a personal choreographic and performance signature that strives to locate an outer expression from an inner ferment of feelings, meeting and studying with Hilde Holger in 1989 was the start of a significant friendship that has cemented theory and practice. Holger, an original member of Gertrud Bodenwieser Tanzgruppe in Vienna, found success as a solo recitalist in the 1920s and 1930s until forced to leave Austria in 1939. After ten years in Bombay she left for London where now, in her 90s she continues to inspire a devoted following. In 1992 Holger reconstructed on me, four simple brief and moving choreographies from the 1920s. It is difficult to intellectualise about such an emotive experience, but working closely with the music score and Holger's sharp memory and driven passion, she reconstructed her past. The success of our partnership was no accident, we share common ideals, the necessity to charge the steps with belief, both physically and emotionally, the need to promote challenging and provocative work and deny dance cliches, to say what you have to say and then stop, and if you have nothing to say to not even start.

In being party to reconstruction, the past is documented and becomes a reaffirmation of present and all those old cliches, if you do not know history you are condemned to repeat yourself and the mistakes of others and the past catches up with you, strike with unnerving truth. If one avoids procreation, a personal aesthetic footprint can instead become part of the artistic ether. Reconstruction can embed that future. Some of our friends are kept in capture, they are underground and out of sight, why do we not try and rescue them all, why do we not dig them up tonight? (1) Hobble on Liz Aggiss, I say your past has already caught up with you.

Liz Aggiss, Artistic Director (with Billy Cowie), Divas Dance Theatre, and Programme Leader for BA Hons Dance and Visual Art at The University of Brighton. Between them, Aggiss and Cowie have received numerous accolades for their work including: 1994 Bonnie Bird Choreography Award, BBC2 Arts Council Dance for Camera for Beethoven in Love, Meridian Taped Up Award, Time Out/Dance Umbrella Award and Brighton Festival Awards for Dance and Contemporary Music. Contact +44 (0)1273 327894.

1 Cowie B. Falling Apart at The Seams, Divas, 1994

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001