Aggiss is the English Channel. Drum roll. Spotlight. Theatrical as ever, unashamedly unapologetic, Aggiss’ latest work catapults her into her sixtieth year. She puts it best herself: ‘isn’t it wonderful that I’m still dancing’, before twisting her way around the stage in a green sequinned backless flapper dress and gold-bowed shoes…
Aggiss’ The English Channel is a celebration of defiance, of not sitting down quietly, of asserting an identity that refuses to be categorised. She enters the stage covered to the top of her head by a black cape that renders her lampshade-like in the spotlight. She evokes a religious figure, ritualistic, otherwordly, and yet simultaneously ridiculous; a leg pops out and the image is complete in its absurdity. This feels like a trademark source of dynamism for Aggiss, that she lets no assumptions go unchecked; no moment is ever straightforward, but subverted perhaps by a rhythmic comment, angular gesture, or the sharp intimidating gaze that always seems to match and contend with Aggiss’ unquenchable thirst for fun.
A culmination of her striking style, influenced by German expressionism and female dancers from the pre and interwar years, the overarching reminder throughout this piece is that Aggiss is in her sixtieth year and entering a new phase. A skull sits on stage watching Aggiss throughout the performance; ‘don’t move’ she tells it, and she seems to be saying, ‘don’t come any closer’, not yet, not while she embraces the freedom of doing exactly what she damn well pleases. Not yet. Aggiss is in conversation with death, women gone by, ageing, time running out, as much as with the audience; they seem to be vehicles for Aggiss to question the act of performing itself: ‘Is there time for this?!’ she asks. The piece jumps through eras, with sixties spiralling visuals, archive footage, punk outfits and remembrances of being told to ‘shut up, children should be seen not heard’.
Well Aggiss is certainly making herself seen and heard, but there is a constant dialogue between the visible and invisible in her work. There are the traces of past influences coming and going, the irony that mask the political, the emotional, making them all the more witty and enjoyable. There is the visibility of her body, and yet her fragmented movements and speech distil each gesture, leaving spaces and silences, gaps and invisibility in between.
During a later scene when Aggiss seems to be saying goodbye to her performance and her history, delicately placing all of her props in brown paper bags, the audience is lulled into the poignancy of this moment’s stillness and vulnerability. Aggiss begins singing into a brown paper bag, sounding like an old record – one of her many influences drawn from the past. Is she joining this archive of women who weren’t afraid to be who they wanted to be, making them alive as she does it? Just as we are left in that moment, Aggiss looks up, turns to the audience, says ‘well that wasn’t very fun was it?’. She breaks the emotion, but not undermining it having been there, rather affirming the importance of humour and cheek in her work. Hence her ability to come across as incredibly defiant, revealing herself whilst performing to the last, keeping the possibility of revealing one definitive self, firmly at bay.
She is both elusive and apparent and perhaps that is where her engima lies, continuously playing on this dynamic through her constant performance of roles. As Aggiss asks the audience ‘do I please you, or do I please myself?’, she immediately pleases us, but an enjoyment in her infectious rebelliousness is coupled with the fact that the question is, and never will be, answered. Is Aggiss performing for herself, or performing for herself in order to perform for us? Instead of this question being hammered home – it is perhaps a question at the root of all performance – the opacity of its answer highlights Aggiss’ ability to resist transparency, to evade being easily boxed. In doing so she is constantly deconstructing what it is to be a woman, to be a certain age, a performer, watcher or watched.
I often find myself wondering at the balance in contemporary performance between the use of irony and humour to shed light on a subject of critique, and the performance of a new perception or new possibility of identity. My experience as a viewer is that there is more of the former, which sometimes leaves me longing for the realisation of the more open-ended potential of performance to re-imagine (literally make a new image) of reality. Aggiss seems to tread this line, between critiquing through her humour and rebelliousness whilst also performing an alternative identity – one that isn’t constrained by assumptions – through performing herself. In this way she seems to fully utilise and remind her audience of what performance space can be.
Every joke she makes at her own expense is also at the expense of her audience; it is the way we look at her that she ridicules, the expectations we might might have of her that she brings into the spotlight. Aggiss never fails to amuse, bemuse and generally reassure that there is still place for profundity coming out of a sheer outrageous confirmation of being alive.