Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Liz Aggiss. Now Liz lived in the magical land of Dagenham in Essex, in a traditional family unit. She wasn’t like all the other little girls. She wanted to go down the rabbit hole, as she found it rather more interesting. So when she grew up, Liz eschewed the easy categories of dance, storytelling and performance art, instead welding them all together in a unique practice. With the spit of punk and the polish of ballet, Liz Aggiss transformed into a singular provocateur. Isn’t that absolutely fascinating, girls and boys?
“Are you sitting comfortably?” trills Emma Kilbey’s BBC Radio RP voiceover. ”Well, we’ll soon see to that.” Slap and Tickle, as part of the Dance International Glasgow strand, is a wilfully raucous, often unnerving meditation on the reductive labels that limit the development and growth of girls. It’s also an impassioned plea for visibility, a space for recognising the sexuality and agency of older women. Part fever-dream burlesque, part twisted nursery rhyme, it explores the dichotomy of societal expectations of women. Domestic goddess, princess, lady, sweetie-pie, yummy mummy, muse – all mere constructs to be toppled and stamped upon.
Aggiss is an unabashed, uninhibited, steel-eyed performer, emerging from the haze in a clinging, gold dress that she swishes around her ankles like the Victorian Butterfly dance. Showing first a glass slipper, then shapely pins, she morphs into an anti-Tiller girl, can-can-ing into oblivion. As Joe Murray’s musical collage warps, so the tone darkens. Fairy-tales, as reimagined and deconstructed by Angela Carter’s stories/plays and Marina Warner’s essays, are half the tale, sour as cream. The heroine isn’t asleep, waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince – she’s round the back of the bins having a knee-trembler and ciggy with an unsuitable swain.
It’s a particularly British nightmare of endlessly twitchy suburban curtains, evocative of Archie Rice’s music hall misanthropy, Marie Lloyd’s innuendo, miserable Pinteresque swingers’ parties and end-of-the-pier kitsch, simmering with alcoholism and domestic violence.
“Poppets and angels” become “nuisances, precocious brats”. “Any leaking women, any cancerous holes in tonight?” Aggiss queries mildly, cornflower blue eyes a-twinkle. Dancing like a marionette, costume changed again into a long black gown, she looks like a living, breathing Dadaist sculpture, hat engulfing her entire face, scooping toy frogs, snakes and spiders from her decolette. Purcell’s gorgeous funereal “Cold Song” bookends each scene change, while “Que Sera, Sera” becomes a caustic paean to rape, abuse and abortion, slyly undercut with typically English platitudes – a swift ”Cheer up, might never ‘appen!”, “You’ll get over it!” or a “Let’s have a paaarty!” Duly noted, flying balloons and a bawdy pass-the-parcel are introduced.
Oddly graceful segments provide the most disarming moments, though the shit ventriloquist act with a creepy puppet carries a haunting subtext about child neglect and smothering. These moments are the most exposed and exposing – little slivers of vulnerability amid the high kicks and ribaldry. Loss cannot but help seep through the cracks, a memento mori woven into the red cloth of a gown, which subsumes Aggiss, swallows her up like “the old woman who swallowed a fly. She’s dead… of course”. Happy endings?
Slap and Tickle is on tour until August 26th. For more details, click here.