Anarchic Dance

Anarchic Dance was published by Routledge in January 2006 and is edited by Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie with Ian Bramley.

Aggiss and Cowie have assembled a broad range of writers to contribute to this publication. Each of these writers use their specialist knowledge to create a wider understanding, interpretation and context of the processes, practices and performances of Aggiss, Cowie and Divas. This book offers the reader the opportunity to match words with action using the enclosed DVD of extracts from Aggiss and Cowie’s work and is also illustrated with an extensive series of black and white and colour photographs of their films and performances.

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 French feminist philosophy, post structuralist discourse, historical analysis of Expressionist and Grotesque dance, film theory, creative prose and conversation. It is both readable from cover to cover and eminently dippable.

The book’s insights provide a comprehensive investigation into Cowie and Aggiss’ collaborative partnership and demonstrate a range of exciting approaches through which dance performance can be engaged critically.

Foreword by Donald Hutera 1. Introduction, Navigating the Known by Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie 2. The Aesthetics of Smash and Grab by Carol Brown 3. Writing Dance by Deborah Levy 4. Liz Aggiss and the Authentick Grotesque Expressionism by Marion Kant 5. Choreographic Vocabulary One: Visual Metaphor by Billy Cowie 6. Outsider Performance: A Raw Vision by Liz Aggiss 7. Deconstruction in Die Orchidee – mischievous play between language and meanings by Valerie Briginshaw 8. Hilde Holger: Spirit and Maracas by Claudia Kappenberg and Liz Aggiss 9. Choreographic Vocabulary Two: Time and Rhythm by Billy Cowie 10. The Impossibility in the Mind of the Critic by Ian Bramley 11. Deconstructing Heidi by Sondra Fraleigh 12. Choreographic Vocabulary Three: Space by Billy Cowie 13. Screen Divas: A Filmic Expression of the Grotesque Aesthetic by Sherril Dodds 14. Reconstruction: A Rough Guide to the Future by Liz Aggiss 15 Anarchic Dance by Billy Cowie Afterword by Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie

Liz Aggiss (performer, choreographer, filmmaker) and Billy Cowie (composer, choreographer, filmmaker) dedicate Anarchic Dance to themselves, in celebration of their long-term collaboration and friendship. And good on them: their moment has come, and Aggiss and Cowie are a formidable team. Their deserved reputation rests on many strands of activity over the years; as artistic directors of the seminal Divas Dance Theatre; awarded-winning filmmakers for their dance-on-screen work; conveners of the ground-breaking Visual and Performing Arts degree at the University of Brighton. Their extraordinary range of work – from cabaret solos like Grotesque Dancer to such large –scale ensemble pieces as No Man’s Land (which featured a host of women of all ages) to the stunning 3-D installation Men in the Wall – can be viewed on the DVD, and is reflected upon in this book (with contributions from Aggiss and Cowie themselves together with such luminaries as Deborah Levy and Sherrill Dodds). Although primarily a monograph dedicated to Divas, an added bonus is the inclusion of a chapter, by Aggiss and Claudia Kappenberg, on the works of Hilde Holger, the German expressionist dancer who was both teacher and inspiration to Aggiss.
Dorothy Max Prior Total Theatre Vol. 18/1 Spring 2006

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.
Lizzie le Quesne Ballet Tanz April 2006

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

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 2006