Lady Blackshirt, the new dance film from Impermanence, is a kaleidoscopic look at Modernist thought and movements and how they are reflected in the world today. As part of research project DECADE, 100 artists were asked to respond to Modernist magazines, and the film combines many of these individual responses with short pieces of dance filmed on the Bristol Old Vic’s stage.
The montage effect created can be occasionally frustrating. The fact that we see each response only for a short time, and that they are often interspersed heavily with each other, means that it is difficult to sit with the ideas for any one piece. Each piece is responding to different materials, and there just isn’t time to examine the nuance of each response before your attention is pulled elsewhere. I was glad to see that all the works were also collected individually on the DECADE website, where they can be appreciated at one’s leisure. The sections on the Old Vic stage are often lingered on for a little longer, but feel imbued by a similar choppiness – the cuts are quick, and it feels like we’re seeing curated glimpses of an exploration rather than a single cohesive piece. It’s partly a question of personal taste — with performance under lockdown being far more mediated I yearn to watch a piece of dance unfold without interruption, and I often felt I was torn away from beautiful and thoughtful movement that I longed to stay with longer.
But while artists’ intentions for individual piece feel occasionally obscured, the mosaic of fleeting glimpses of meaning gives its own interpretation of the era. Putting these very different pieces side by side creates a vision of a time full of contradiction and multiplicity. The film highlights the contrasts that exist within Modernist thought and movements — the chapters which the film is split into are often themed around ideas that sit in tension with each other, such as ‘Fate and Free Will’, or ‘Violence and Inspiration’. This tension is perhaps best expressed in the section which gives the film its name; over choreography we hear suffragette Mary Richardson give a charming and righteous account of her attack on the Rokeby Venus, before learning that she later became the Chief Organiser for the Women’s Section of the British Union of Fascists.
There are also moments where the editing elevates rather than confuses the pieces. The best example of this is ‘Chapter 6: Faust and Chaos’. This section creates a collection of pieces interested in the acts of appearing and disappearing, through closeup magic, camera trickery, makeup and collage. Over all this is Thom Shaw reading an adapted version of a review written about author Frank Harris in which he is praised by the author declaring a wide variety of people, places and things as ‘practically unknown’. It creates a fascinating lens of thinking about what things are seen and not seen, how things are appreciated, or not. Underscored by Andy Balcon’s driving music, it captures some of the best aspects of montage work; a playful rhythm, fun comparisons, and a sense of amplified meaning.
It is inevitable that the film is deeply informed by the state of lockdown. This is true not only of the form of the pieces – often solos created in the artists homes – but also in the thematic content. In a short section, Jan Winter talks about how much Modernist thought is tied together with John Locke’s idea of liberalism, often leaving no opportunity for communal embodied experience, which takes on new meaning under current circumstances. Modernist musings on individualism and alienation become deeply tied to our enforced apartness. Experimentation with embodiment comes back again and again, not just through the dancers’ bodies themselves, but through how many of the pieces engage with the natural world, or imagine connections that cannot currently happen. This sense of reaching towards each other is captured in Caleb Parkin’s text piece, scrawled across pages of The New Freewoman, which reads ‘You are to imagine a crowd, their sweat and breath misting the sunrise. You are to imagine we are embracing, unmasked and unafraid.’
Lady Blackshirt is an imperfect but enjoyable document of a fascinating project. It is filled with moments of brilliance; Flexer and Sandiland’s glitch dance, which creates a smeared painting behind the artist as they move; Ned Stuart-Smith’s refilling bathtub and un-eaten chicken; Tom Cassani flying across a stage suspended only by his hair. The breadth of responses is varied and intriguing, and even if you don’t get a chance to watch the full film, the website collection holds some unexpected pleasures.
Lady Blackshirt is available to stream until 30 May. More info here.