do we please you, or please ourselves?

Liz Aggiss - The English Channel (c) Joe Murray 02 - SMALL

Photograph of Liz Aggiss by Joe Murray

The English Channel by Liz Aggiss, Friday 7th June at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds and 50 Acts by Wendy Houston, Wednesday 22nd May at LBT, Huddersfield.

I’ll tell you a silly secret. I once described myself as an anarcha-protest-dancer. It’s silly because I bear only a passing resemblance to anything anarchic. Being vaguely rebellious doesn’t quite cut the mustard. However, perhaps it’s this part of me that made me so excited when I read about Liz Aggiss, “the doyenne of anarchic dance… a cultural carrier… and a conduit to channel wilful women everywhere!” I was almost weeing myself with anticipation, let’s be honest. Liz Aggiss’ The English Channel was only the second one woman show I’ve seen – ever – which is interesting in itself. It just so happens that the first was less than a month ago, and was not entirely unrelated. I went to see 50 Acts by Wendy Houston after she was described to me as “the godmother of everything we love”, meaning outspoken, theatrical, dance performance and strong female performers!

As visible ‘older’ performers, both women dealt with the subject of aging, but with wildly different approaches to the way in which they wished to be seen and heard by their audiences. I couldn’t help but watch both with this thought in mind: what kind of woman and performer will I be when I am their age? What is it about these women that can be found in all of us?

Liz’s approach was a no-holds-barred, riotous, archival extravaganza of the good, the bad and the ugly of aging, with a healthy dose of German Expressionism thrown in for good measure. Death and sex were never far from the furore, or from each other. It reminded me of this phrase my own lovely Mum has coined, ‘to be estranged from our own excrement’. It is a metaphor for all that is wrong with the world, inspired by people who refuse to go for a number two in public toilets, instead waiting all day until they get home to their triple-ply toilet paper and sanitised lavs. Liz is most definitely not of this ilk. From disco balls and skulls, to foot-long dildo dances, you never could tell what she would whip out of her knickers next – as Liz herself testified, when mid-performance she asked the audience the loaded question; ‘should I… insert a big move here’? Always though, you could count on whatever it was being delivered dripping with hilarity and meaning.

The really great thing is that Liz knows how to temper the riot at just the right moment. A swimming-suit dance near the opening left me gasping with wonder, at how little more than Liz’s two arms could so articulately express the ups and downs of a long life lived fully. The nurse-of death character, in which she put away her props in brown paper bags before singing an aria from Purcell’s Dido and The Aeneas, was sadness personified. The melodrama of it all added a touch of self-conscious-deprecation. We’re all going to experience aging, and we’re all going to die one day, after all. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. I was struck again and again by the audience’s collective joy at watching this woman’s unabashed celebration of her body, and acceptance of life, death, and all the gore in between that some would like to have us believe doesn’t exist.

50 Acts was an utterly different experience. For 50 acts in 50 minutes, we went to a calm, funny, human place: Wendy’s world, or more accurately put, Wendy’s take on our often ridiculous, and sometimes far less humane world.  Watching 50 Acts was a kind of experiential theatre. Not literally – there was no audience interaction, but what I mean is that I wasn’t there to ‘be entertained’ as such (though I was, and frequently). Instead we were going on a journey through time and space, which made those 50 minutes almost meditative. A weird calm descended on the room as Houston’s unassuming wit, wisdom and simple presence created a momentary vacuum – a welcome rest from the hassles of modern living. This being what it was, the sense of stillness was particularly poignant.

I drank in the simple beauty of her endlessly spinning figure (counting 70 turns, before I gave up, impressed) as she whirled like a dervish from the demands of life. I smiled as Wendy, the ‘older’ woman, did the ‘re-dun-dance’, whizzing through a show, or was it a lifetime(?) of outflanks, manoeuvres and double bluffs. At times, nothing else existed. When Houston read her own fortune from the unravelling tape of an obsolete cassette (‘I’m getting… a pension….. No, I’m not getting a pension’), I sighed with the sheer weight of it all, and yet, 50 Acts was not really a heavy work. In fact just the opposite, it seemed to me to give us all a taster of the quiet joy that often only seems to come with age.

The unravelling tape medium was paralleled by Liz Aggiss, where the whole premise of the show was resurrecting female figures from the archives and intermingling them with her own imaginative creations. Forays into comically over-dramatic poetry and ‘gratuitous dancing’ were countered with a long time spent sat in a chair in the corner, the forgotten old woman. Whilst Aggiss also had her fair share of comical poetry, there was little chance she would sit in a chair in the corner, even symbolically. This is not to say that it didn’t work in 50 Acts, but simply that these are two different, unique women, and their concept of pleasing you, or pleasing themselves, means that the two shows are based on different foundations, and ask you to watch them in very different way.

By the end I felt like Wendy was an old friend, the kind of subtle, laughing and thoughtfully rebellious woman I admire, despite the fact that a side of me also likes to revel in a more rudely audacious manner, saying and doing the unsayable via a wealth of crazy characters, just like Liz. What these two inspirational women do is current, difficult to categorise, and beautifully poetic. I dare say that we all felt our own mortality in each audience, as the acts marched relentlessly onwards and the time for disembarking drew nearer. There is a part of all of us in Liz, and a part of all of us in Wendy, and there is definitely a large part of each of them in each other. In the theatre of life, what would be truly humane is if each and all versions could be both seen, and heard, more often, by all of us.

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