Liz Aggiss defines herself as indefinable: a performance artist, live artist, lecturer, researcher, choreographer, film maker – the list continues. Weaving herself between these categories, she takes the audience on a refreshingly unabashed ‘this is my life’. If the audience doesn’t know what to make of her, then one thing is certain: from her spotlit, glitzy, flirtatious entrance to her angular and energetic ‘grotesque’ dancing, Liz Aggiss is at play. At play with her audience, with language, with her personas, with her body, with her sex and with the influences that contoured her shape-shifting self.
Aggiss stretches, contorts, narrates, flirts, disgusts, exhibits, jokes, recites and poses her way through her dance history in the guise of a lecturer. She slips in and out of roles just as she dresses and undresses out of her myriad of costumes. She is both teacher and pupil, taking the audience to lesser known corners of European Expressionist dance history, whilst also paying homage to those dancers who have taught her. One minute she teasingly undresses on stage, the next she takes layers of underwear off and plays at smelling herself, scrunching up her nose at the result. The visceral confrontation of this comical moment powerfully plays on throughout the performance: here is a real body, with natural processes that defy conventional ways of seeing. The ability to flit between contradictory traits or appearances is where her potency lies; she re-writes expectations, labels and rules around her own body and sexuality. Her provocative facial expressions are matched and subverted by her grotesque ones; her body is one minute womanly and feminine, the next arched into the animal, or angular in its masculinity. She holds and embodies all of these contradictions and personas through the relationship between text and body that carries her performance.
Her poetic play with language – ‘my arms are all frayed, I’m afraid’ – makes language itself the object of scrutiny; herein lie the voices of society’s expectations and their binaries. The body is a thing to be consumed, commodified, like her ‘liver in the butcher’s window’. But Aggiss subverts the power structures that demand this, by verbally re-claiming her body: “my, my” she claims flirtatiously, touching the various parts of her body. However, what she re-claims verbally, she also re-claims physically; it is ultimately the body’s own dramatic expression that undermines these binaries and speaks beyond them.
Influenced by a European tradition of German Expressionism and grotesque dance, Aggiss performs movements of (mostly) female dancers who are, as she says, ‘inspirational survivors who dared to be who they were’. It is the authenticity behind their dance as well as the aesthetic that shaped her and spoke to something already within Aggiss: the style ‘suited my temperament, my body, and me’. The angular shapes, the tableau-like poses, the intense, confused, anxious facial expressions – often seem independent of the mind’s desire or intention. The body becomes an agent of its own change, a speaker with its own language and voice. She jumps and jerks, claws her hands and arches her body like a robotic animal or a series of still photographs. The energy and expression in these ‘grotesque’ movements are authentic to Aggiss’s voice, thus she re-writes the criteria for beauty and redefines our ways of seeing.
Her theatrical costume changes, which on the surface appear humorous and entertaining, belie a savviness and an edge that don’t go unnoticed. After all, this piece is titled Survival Tactics, and Aggiss doesn’t fail to mention that, going into her 60th year, she is still performing, making and inspiring. Her humour and theatricality show her as an entertainer as well as an artist – this is not cheap humour or easy entertainment; humour laces the potent politics and poignant vulnerabilities of her work. Aggiss evades the judgements that wish to box her by age, appearance, profession and sex, by making these the very subjects of her story, appropriating and subverting them for her aims only. However, in doing so she also belies a vulnerability and preoccupation; perhaps it is a fear of silencing self-expression that makes Aggiss’s performance seem so fearless. Sticking red tape to every mark of injury she has had, she writes her story on her own skin, claiming its fallible nature and emotional vulnerabilities. Just as she slaps the tape on her head saying ‘depression’ she sighs theatrically and mutters to herself ‘oh shut up, shut up, me me me me, always about me…’. Then one trajectory is cut-off by another role, another bodily shape, another part of the kaleidoscope performance.
Whilst she takes ownership of her own body, Aggiss’s ‘homage’ to her influences, from Max Wall to Hilde Holger and ‘Auntie Flo’ aka Marjorie Irvine, humbly resists ownership. She performs an archive of dances, blending research and history with her own performance flair. Making her influences clear seems not only an act of passion and gratitude towards them, but also a subtle playagainst her own apparently self-focussed narrative. Again Aggiss undermines what she herself sets up. On the one hand theatrically self-centered – her opening speech is a scream of “I” followed by a disgusted, ashamed facial expression and plead of “ssshhhh!!” – she simultaneously steps down from the podium of authorship and ownership to perform these dancers’ lost or forgotten dances. Her body is a site of individuality, but also of influence. Amongst those influences are also the voices of convention that she dances and performs against. The play between the two, and Aggiss’s tangible reveling in her own trickster-esque dance is magnetic and dynamic, as she defiantly returns the element of play to the political.