In the same week that SWAGGA erupted into the Yard, performance artist and fat activist Scottee appeared on Radio 4 with a documentary about his much-missed chub-beauty-pageant Hamburger Queen. Near the beginning of the programme, a contestant was heard declaring: “Anyone that doesn’t like seeing a fat person dance, look away now.”
That is the gaze SWAGGA combats and courts.
On the same day that SWAGGA flared incandescent into the Yard, theatre critic Matt Trueman wrote a column for the Stage about beauty: a quality rare in theatre, he argued, but integral to dance. He wrote of: “bodies in space making shapes. Legs like ruled lines. Kicks fluttering like butterflies. Arms extended all the way to the fingertips. Muscles. Joints. Skin. It is transfixing.” He doesn’t specify what kind of bodies, what kind of muscles, joints, skin. But we know. We all know.
Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt don’t have those kinds of bodies. They are fat. Obese. Their flabby bellies hang over their waistbands and their thighs rub together when they walk. During the process of making SWAGGA, Cooper wrote a blog post in which she described the ways in which she has been taught to see her body: as “a medicalised body in need of immediate, terrible, invasive interventions; someone who could die at any minute from a heart attack or seizure of some kind; a passive blob; a body on the edge; a wrong body; an assemblage of pathologies; a profoundly fragile body”. In SWAGGA her recorded voice is heard flatly intoning the names of all the people who are appalled by her body: she ticks off members of her family, of her girlfriend’s family, their personal acquaintances. And yet through SWAGGA hers becomes a body of inexorable power and implacable beauty. A body she claims the pride to own.
Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack
Satan’s Women Also Gentle Glowing Angels
Sexy Wild Angry Gorgeous Gay Amazons
Seriously, What Amazing Glorious Gorge-Arses (that one dedicated to Adrian Howells)
Sensibility, Wit, Agility, Grace, Gusto, Ablaze
See What Agency, Glorification, Generosity Achieve
“I want to dance how I write how I sing how I make things how I think,” wrote Cooper in the blog post that first brought her to the attention of choreographers Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley. In SWAGGA she does. She dances with rage, with commitment, with satirical intent; she dances with romance, with laughter, with lightness of touch. Johnson-Small and Hemsley have collaborated with her over several months to sculpt a choreography that nods to a compendium of dance moves – the tango, the watusi, the elongated lines of abstract contemporary – then cheerfully rejects them in favour of a movement that comes from Cooper herself, through which she communicates her politics, her love, her fury and desire.
When Cooper and Hyatt erupt on to the stage, they are volatility incarnate, seething aggression. “C’mon motherfuckers, the bitches are in the house!” they taunt. “I am gonna fuck all the women! I am Satan! I AM SATAN!” Cooper screams. If there is a disgusted gaze in the audience, they are confronting it; if there is a sympathising gaze, a silently-glad-my-belly-is-smaller-than-yours gaze, a guilty-for-hating-it-when-a-fat-person-sits-next-to-me-on-public-transport gaze, a wow-I’ve-never-seen-a-breast-that-big gaze, they are spitting venom into it. The complexity of this challenge is perfectly expressed in the music of Trash Kit, playing live, which sets the mood as the audience enter and cleaves the show down the middle: its rhythms hammer bluntly but the guitar slips and slams in unexpected directions, its movements lithe and teasing – just like Cooper’s and Hyatt’s.
To a world that simultaneously renders them invisible and condemns them for being excessively visible, these women stake their claim as forces of nature, matriarch-goddesses, beings larger than Life. At the heart of the show, Hyatt performs a dance of sexual largesse, the play on words deliberate, coins spilling from her hands as her limbs tremble in the half-light. And this is already pretty extraordinary, but then Cooper announces that she’s going to perform the wig dance. “There’s a story behind it,” she sneers, “but I don’t know if I can be bothered to tell you.” She does tell us what she thinks about when doing the dance: Iggy Pop and Lady King Kong and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, what a good fuck she is and how oppressed she is by body-obsession. With long, ratty black wigs affixed to each of her head-sized breasts, she begins slowly to shimmer and gyrate; Hyatt sits beside her, calmly massaging a downy handful of feathers. Meanwhile the two of them sing, a mantra of self-belief. From their seats in the auditorium, the three members of Trash Kit plus Johnson-Small and Hemsley join in, harmonies flocking the room with the intent and freedom of birds. “All the ladies’ love is on me,” they sing. “She’s shaking it, she’s shaking it, s-h-a-k-e.” Gradually voices peel away until it’s just Cooper and Hyatt, and then just Hyatt, repeating the same words over and over: “All the ladies’ love… She’s shaking it… My god I am magnificent.” Not just magnificent: refulgent, transcendent.
In their first collaboration, O, Johnson-Small and Hemsley foregrounded their own marginalised bodies and the racist, sexist gaze they attract; in SWAGGA, they open up that space to different marginalised bodies subject to a whole strand of misanthropy. See, these works ask. See past, see again, see anew. SWAGGA is a work of scouring, cleansing intensity. Because of that, it is transfixing.
Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small on SWAGGA, dance, dissent, and diversity