Anarchic Dance was published by Routledge for Taylor and Francis in January 2006 and is edited by Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie with Ian Bramley. It consists of a book and DVD-ROM, and is a visual and textual record of the work of Aggiss and Cowie. Assembled is a broad range of writers (including Aggiss): Donald Hutera, Dr. Carol Brown, Deborah Levy, Dr. Marion Kant, Dr/Prof. Valerie Briginshaw, Claudia Kappenberg, Ian Bramley, Prof. Sondra Fraleigh, Dr. Sherril Dodds, who contribute to this publication using their specialist knowledge to create a wider understanding, interpretation and context of the processes, practices and performances of Aggiss and Cowie. This book is illustrated with a series of black and white, and colour photographs. The included DVD-ROM features extracts from the live and screen work. As much as Aggiss and Cowie’s practice is hybrid, maverick and indefinable, the various theories presented are equally challenging, lively and fresh. Each essay analyses specific performances, discussing the subject matter and its execution using for example feminist philosophy, post structuralist discourse, historical analysis of Expressionist and Grotesque Dance, film theory, creative prose and conversation. The book’s insights provide a comprehensive investigation into their collaborative partnership and demonstrate a range of exciting approaches through which dance performance can be critically engaged.
This book traces the work of Divas Dance Theatre, a British performance collaborative, comprised of Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie, who have been working together since 1980. After these statements, categorisations and descriptions of the duo, their processes and artistic creations become very difficult to define, and it is partly this problem that the book explores. Whilst it might be convenient to position Aggiss as dancer/performer/choreographer and Cowie as musician/composer, their writings, and those of others, make it clear that this is to misunderstand the nature of this particular collaboration, where music and choreography are created simultaneously in the rehearsal and research process, rather than one leading the other. Their practice might be described as dance theatre or dance performance, but Divas has had an uneasy relationship with the dance establishment and funding bodies through its unconventional and somewhat eccentric performances. This sense of a slightly misaligned creative imperative, in terms of wider contexts, institutions and practices, permeates the work of Divas and indeed the book as a whole, but not as a potentially problematic negative. It is this slippage between categories that energises and enthuses both Aggiss and Cowie in their work and adds a refreshing layer of insight to the book.
As an edited collection, the book contains critical and reflective essays from a variety of sources, including the choreographer Carol Brown and writer Deborah Levy, interleaved with Cowie’s and Aggiss’s own reflections on their work and processes. The idea of the collection is articulated as an opportunity for the reader to dip in and out of the material, and whilst I can agree that this is a possibility, there is something about the way these essays interact with each other that also invites a more traditional reading. Some of the essays discuss the same works and it makes for interesting comparative reading and analysis to follow these dialogues. In allowing such diverse perspectives to emerge, one encounters some provocative revelations and insights along the way. Some are more heavyweight academic engagements, such as Briginshaw’s essay exploring connections with Derrida and language in relation to the work, whilst Aggiss and Cowie consider their own processes and structures. Other essays pay attention to the links with European expressionism and ‘the grotesque’ found in the work, providing a broader, historical contextualisation for a lesser-known dance form and its founders in the likes of Mary Wigman and Hilde Holger. Ian Bramley’s essay on reviewing the work is a useful insight into the difficulties of gaining some kind of objective distance from a performance in order to evaluate the practice. Finally, there are reflections on the practicalities of collaborative and creative practice, including explanatory histories, comments on funding dilemmas and critical reviews of the work. What is very obvious from the start, is the personal engagement that each of the writers has with Divas, whether through the performances or through professional relationships with Aggiss and Cowie.
For me, however, the most exciting thing about this publication is the inclusion of a DVD, which features extracts from the work. These segments are included as an illustration to the text and the analysis being undertaken and are a wonderful addition to the book. Where description can rarely conjure the performance, particularly when the reader might not have seen the work, the material on the DVD means that nothing has to be imagined. This brings the book alive somehow, animating its text through showing fragments and sections of the performance work of Divas. This makes the analysis comprehensible and more fully engages the reader through encouraging me to also be a viewer of the work. I was somewhat sceptical of the capacity of the DVD to deliver a satisfactory linking experience between text and performance but it has been thoughtfully structured and it is easy to manoeuvre around the extracts. Within each essay, appropriate references are included to guide you to specific examples on the DVD, and this has been done in such a way that does not disrupt the flow of any of the writing.
The span of voices and approaches to these works, from the academic, to the critic and the practitioners themselves, may be too eclectic and inconsistent for some, but it seems appropriate in relation to the performances and the necessity to work between genres and ideas. It does also created a sense of energy and dynamism when reading, as my attention was made to flick between modes and levels of engagement, from very detailed choreographic and structural analysis, to the more anecdotal and personal. As a documentary record of a performance company, it slips between personal recollection and objective analysis, individual histories and public contexts, in turn defying easy literary categorisation. It arguably includes too many ingredients but it is an enjoyable and enlightening read.
In summary, the book and its accompanying DVD chart the development, processes, practices and reactions to a significant collaborative duo on the British dance performance scene since the 1980s. I think it will have particular appeal for students working in dance and performance and for those interested in cross-genre practice.
(Gianna Bouchard Contemporary Theatre Review 18:3 Aug 2008)
With honesty and directness, the artists explain how they work, and the influences upon it, while others provide insightful analysis and context. Academic perceptions are seriously and accessibly brought to bear on the output of Aggiss and Cowie's more than 20 year collaboration - deconstructing and discussing it in terms of feminism, hybridity, Expressionism, the "grotesque", abstraction and narrative, linguistic play and addressing the multiple and playful textures that define it: sound, space, shape, language.
(Lizzy Le Quesne Ballet Tanz Autumn 2005)
Sparking debate is what Divas' work has always done and Anarchic Dance will no doubt continue this legacy. If you are a dancer, student of dance, dance enthusiast or someone who is interested in artists who continually seek to push boundaries, I recommend reading this book.
(Lisa Haight for londondance.com)