Old Dears Review by Geraldine Harris

Old Dears took place in November 2015 at the Chelsea Theatre, London and was a two-day programme on the radical, influential and fiercely feminist practices of an older generation of artists who embody the lived realities of feminist histories and whose work continues to contribute to discourses around gender politics. The event featured performances by Liz Aggiss, Marcia Farquhar, Penny Arcade, and a collaboration between Rocio Boliver and her group of women workshop participants; screenings of work by Lois Weaver, Francis Mezetti & Pauline Cummins, Monica Ross and Bobby Baker; and a panel on feminist influences and influencers with the artists and producers Claire MacDonald, Liz Aggiss, Judith Knight, Geraldine Pilgrim, Nikki Milican, Lois Weaver and Anne Bean. 

Full programme.

View Old Dears documentation 

Below is a review of the event by Geraldine Harris featured in Drama Queens Review, December 2015.

Curated by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), ‘Old Dears’ took place over the 27th and 28th of November at the Chelsea Theatre, Worlds End, London and was billed as being dedicated to the ‘radical influential and fiercely feminist practices of an older generation of artists’. The impressive programme featuring women ranging from around 45 -65 (and rising), included performances by Liz Aggiss, Penny Arcade, Marcia Farquhar and Rocio Boliver who performed alongside group of artists who had been participating in a week long workshop with her (whose names I am unable to record because in a CRAFT* moment I omitted to bring a pen).

It also featured a panel discussion between three of the most influential creative producers (of any gender) in the field of performance and live art in the UK over the last thirty odd years; Lois Keidan, Judith Knight and Nikki Millican, and five similarly important artists; Liz Aggiss, Anne Bean, Claire MacDonald, Geraldine Pilgrim and Lois Weaver.

Three times in the course of this event it was mentioned that complaints had been made about the title ‘Old Dears’, a decision for which Keidan (Director of LADA and herself several years passed her 21st birthday) steadfastly refused to apologise, because she stressed, ‘It’s a joke’.

I mention this because an unapologetic attitude and an understanding of how (in context) humour can speak in a fashion that is at once (sometimes literally) deathly serious and life-affirmingly funny, might be identified as one of the threads running through ‘Old Dears’.

Rather than a blog, which (I have often been reminded) is supposed to be short, I could write a book trying to do justice to these performances and trying to untangle these threads. This then is going to be a lengthy piece (how about we think of it as durational?).

For the sake of relative brevity I’m going to start by considering in some detail, Liz Agiss’s performance The English Channel which opened the programme. I will then refer back to this show as a springboard to consider aspects of the other elements of the programme; before finally returning to the joke.

The English Channel

Publicity and reviews for Aggiss’s The English Channel all dwell on the moment when, wearing a bronze sequined swim suit, she strikes a series of poses and carefully and slowly enunciating asks ‘Do I please you…… or do I please myself? Do I please you….. or do I please myself?' Answering her own question by stating ‘Fuck it, I’m sixty I’m going to do what I want’.

And she does -but it’s what I want too. In fact this is exactly the performance I would love to make at this point in my life, if that is, I had lived it as a live artist, dance performer and choreographer, with training in modernist expressionist dance and in ‘eccentric dance’ derived from Music Hall, a film maker, singer  and (still) had long blonde hair to wallop about like a heavy metal rock star, and the courage to wear sequins (lots of sequins). As it is I am extraordinarily pleased to have been in the audience.

Like all the best work The English Channel is very simple and extremely complex, with images arising and returning, overlaying and displacing each other, like waves running to the shore. This is evident from the start when Aggiss emerges slowly from the gloom, covered head to toe in a black garment with a drawstring top, that could be a shroud or the sort of cape historically worn at masked balls and at the Venice Carnival, or possibly a chador, or one of those individual tent/towel affairs that close around the neck and in my childhood were worn by the shy to change into their swimming things on the beach. Yet when she pulls this garment to above her knees, due to the awkward yet precise movements of her bare legs beneath it, combined with her seemingly elongated neck, it becomes something like the body of a great, black bird. She stops to ask in a harsh whisper ‘Is there anybody there? Is there anybody there?’ and when no answer comes says ‘I’ll wait’ and we hear a whistle. Eventually, she releases the drawstrings to reveal the apparent elongation of her neck is caused by the fact that she is wearing a skull on top of her own head, her hair covered by something that is part 1930s swimming hat, part the sort of (skull?) cap worn in 16th and 17th century paintings of old men and women.

While there are direct references in the show to the English channel, the question ‘is there anybody there?’ points to another sort of ‘channelling’, embracing the channelling of Aggiss own past but also the work of various other ‘wilful’ performance practitioners who have passed.

The sequence described above apparently draws (amongst other things) on the few remaining images of obscure ‘grotesque’ dancer Isi Te Je, and ever afterwards, magically producing props and costume changes from beneath her black cape, or out of her knickers or up from beneath her top, Aggiss invokes and manifests the spirits of other persons, performances, times and places. To mention but a few; this includes the first woman English Channel swimmer, Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003), choreographer Jurt Joos and his 1927 piece ‘Dance of Death’, Robin Hood and his Merry Men from 1950s children’s radio (another  sort of ‘channel’), amateur soprano Florence Foster Jenkins (1986-1944) who we see on film insouciantly wobbling through Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria, 1920s Berlin artist Clare Waldoff, and from the Music Hall Kay Lynne and her 1944 innuendo laden, ‘fingers dance number’, ‘saucy’ comic Max Miller and the eccentric Max Wall. There are also clips on the intro to TV’s Ready Steady Go! of the 1960s and a recording of Pat Simmonds who was the voice of UK’s ‘speaking clock’ between 1963-1985, edited to say (something like) ‘at the first stroke- dizziness, at the second -numbness, at the third stroke'….

The show orchestrates music, sound effects, projected images and film around a ‘base-line’ of ‘eccentric’ or ‘grotesque’ dance in a series of distinct, sequences or episodes. Yet the impression I take away is of a continuously unfolding parade of figures and performance idioms, that seamlessly slips between the comic and the chilling, memento mori and raucous celebration of the pleasures of the flesh. In the course of this the connotations of the generously applied make-up Aggiss wears flicker from death mask to clown, to stage ‘glamour’ to ghost, and back again.

Now, Aggiss is a jaunty Robin Hood in green cape and hat prancing around to children singing, and now a deer shot by an arrow. Now, in a plain black swim suit and white cap against a period film of women swimmers, she sinuously flexes her arms in way that ‘channels’ Ederle but also gestures towards the ballet Swan Lake.

Now, in an emerald green, figure hugging, sequined and fringed dress, she dances the twist and the mash potato and sings of dancing all night and being too drunk, or tired or too weary to fuck. Now, back in the black cape and white cap with a long knives /feathers worn on the fingers of one hand, she is simultaneously a bird and hunter, rocking back and forward with moves that could have come straight from the Rite of Spring. Now, rummaging in her knickers she finds first a nail (‘another nail in my coffin’- ‘bleeding is so last year’) and then a boiled sweet which she offers to the audience.

Now, she is Max Wall but in a gold sequined number more likely to be worn by Tina Turner, and is strutting and prancing in front of a film of the ‘fingers dance’ and getting us all joining in the chorus of the song.

Now, dressed in a 1940s-style red cross nurses costumes and blue skull cap she sings Purcell’s exquisite ‘Dido’s Lament’, first seriously but on the final beautiful, mournful ‘Remember me’ with a deliberate Foster Jenkins wobble. Slowly, she fills brown paper bags first with her props and finally with her own breath before pushing them away, with a final shooing gesture as if setting them free.

Now, in a short black dress that is torn and embellished with safety pins, she is a punk rock amazon, hair flying and arms vigorously punching the air and belting out a list of the sort of admonishments given to unruly children (‘sit still, be quiet, don’t touch, elbows of the table, have you calmed down yet?’) to music of the Dead Kennedy’s.

The latter section, taking us back to childhood and so in a sense the 'start', appears to be the piece’s finale and ends with Aggiss saying Bye Bye but as we applaud she stops us saying ‘it’s not over until I say so’ getting us all to come on stage to dance to ‘Knees up Mother Brown’.

Meticulously constructed and perfectly polished but playing entirely by its own rules The English Channel is imbued with a sort of crazy, magnificent wildness. In fact its ‘carnival’ as defined by Mikhail Bahktin which ‘brings together, unifies, weds, and combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid’. Like his notion of ‘grotesque realism’, this show can be said to ‘precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life’ that embraces ‘negation and destruction […] inseparable from affirmation’, just as the laughter in this show, like his description of ‘folk laughter’ might be said to symbolise ‘the defeat […]of all that oppresses and restricts’.

Penny Arcade.

The spirit of ‘carnival’ that I am identifying in Aggiss’s piece was perhaps less obviously present in the performance given by the legendary Penny Arcade. At 19 Arcade was an Andy Warhol ‘superstar’ and since then has been a key figure in the New York ‘underground’ (the art scene –not the tube/subway) and toured internationally with landmark shows such as BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! Currently she is in the UK touring a new piece Longing Last Longer but for ‘Old Dears’ offered an improvised monologue entitled My Life as History.

This late night show rounded off the first evening of ‘Old Dears’ following Agiss’s performance and a presentation of three short films from the LADA archive of works by Lois Weaver, Monica Ross and Bobby Baker.

An immediate link with The English Channel was evident when Arcade’s assertion that she ‘hates academics’ met with a muted objection from the front row (although it made three of us academics sitting in a row, smile), and Arcade responded this was her show and she was going to say what the fuck she liked.

This prompted a riff on how people have frequently objected to her ‘tone’ and as well as relating this to her Italian heritage, she advised younger women to take note of it –because it might resemble their ‘tone’ when they have experienced life as a women artist for over 45 years. After calling for a series of lighting changes, she went on to speak for some time in total black out, reflecting back on some of the highs and lows of her career and looking into a future, in which after four decades of making highly respected and influential work, she will be dependent on meagre social security payments.

Changing focus (and lighting states) and again responding to a member of the audience, she spoke about looking after her mother during the final months of her life. Arcade underlined how important it had been to her to be able to do this, despite, or rather as she stressed because their relationship had been a fraught one indeed, as portrayed by Arcade – bitterly so.

After the blazing theatricality of The English Channel this performance felt at times both introspective and less affirmative. However, it would be dishonest in a programme of performances focused around older women not to explore some of the past disappointments and future anxieties that haunt the dark when your life ‘is history’. Further, it was notable in the panel discussion the next day that when asked to name women who had a significant impact on their careers several of the speakers started with their mothers. In all cases they indicated a more positive relationship than that portrayed by Arcade but her message concerning the importance of reconciliation with those that (for good and/or for ill) have shaped us is a vital one.

Arcade has more than earned the right to use whatever ‘tone’ she chooses, and as in this performance she interspersed combative remarks and flashes of acerbic wit with moments of vulnerability and emotional generosity.

Marcia Farquhar

Formally and thematically Marcia Farquhar’s piece Recalibrating Hope: (h)old dear and let go, performed in the bar area of the Chelsea the next day appeared to sit exactly in between Aggiss’s and Arcade’s performances.

Aggiss explored her own past mostly through the medium of the work of other artists and performances whilst Arcade spoke directly about her own experiences and as noted above ended by speaking about her mother. In Recalibrating Hope Farquhar started by talking about her relationship with her mother and for the most part focussed on stories from her past growing up in bohemian Chelsea of the 1960s and 1970s. However, Farquhar’s overall ‘tone’ was more theatrical than Arcade’s and she used her collection of 7” records of pop music to provide a loose structure for the show which also signalled the influence on her work of the various artists she encountered (directly and indirectly) during this period.

Apart from some elements of audience participation The English Channel was carefully plotted and rehearsed, while Arcade commented that she had ‘not prepared anything’, and her monologue grew out of the moment in response to the audience and interaction with the lighting operator. Recalibrating Hope started with Farquhar announcing a determination to read from a typed script to keep herself focussed but she proceeded to constantly interrupt herself and to go off on tangents, many of which were obviously spontaneous.

Aside from the distraction provided by her failure to find the Sandy Shaw record she wanted to play, these interruptions embraced comments about the panel discussion that immediately preceded this piece; references to The English Channel (including possibly the quoting of some of the wilder dance moves, although this may be co-incidence); remarks on the demonstrations against the Government plans to bomb Syria taking place in London that day and responses to, and interactions with the audience and with the sound technicians.

Throughout the piece Farquhar was also working on an illuminated sign made from a light box and a tin foil baking tray, which at the start declared ‘Give up’ but by the end had been altered to ‘Give Up and Go On’.

I could spend some time interpreting this as a carnivelesque sign of simultaneous negation and affirmation but will just say the apparent contradiction it signals the contradictions embraced and explored in the show as a whole. Farquhar’s desire to resist ‘all that oppresses and restricts' and to tell those who have judged, admonished or attempted to control to her to fuck off, battles with her tendency to self-reflection, the warmth of her empathy and a desire to be polite. Equally, while she detailed some of troubles and lasting griefs of her past and traced their scars in the present, the speed and keenness of her wit and her impeccable comic timing made the show as a whole into something gloriously affirmative. This was an incandescently funny and scorchingly honest performance from a unique and genuinely eccentric artist. It was also unquestionably live art; retrospective yes-but equally a work totally in and off the moment.

Rocio Boliver and Company

The aspect of carnival which embraces and celebrates the materiality of the body in all its ages, shapes and sizes and in all its functions, liquids and secretions was most obviously in play in the one hour installation /performance arising from the Boliver workshop entitled Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty.

Visiting the UK from her base in Mexico, Boliver is what is sometimes termed a ‘body artist’ playing on and with the boundaries of her skin and on the border between abjection and pleasure. Collectively, the performances in this piece played on the profound culture ambivalences projected onto women’s bodies (and internalised) especially as they age, creating a series of surreal and sometimes savagely comic images.

The main performance space featured Rocio in a pool of light, topless and wearing a stained nappy adorned with feathers, and with (possibly?) faeces smearing her thighs. Helpers used multiple needles to pierce the skin of her body and face and these were attached to complex web of wires which when pulled tight made her skin stretch taut in a manner that suggests the distortions created by too much plastic surgery.

In other areas, a woman wearing fake plastic breasts, the nipples replaced by tiny penises, a split kipper covering her be-legined crotch, sewed on ‘pubic hair’.

Another woman dressed in black and white taped herself to a chair and then struggled to get free all the while hampered by the excess weight of several large bags of flour in a black plastic bag.

A women in bra and pants and a gimp mask climbed around the space, grunting.

A couple sitting in the corner with their backs to us surrounded by plastic roses, one who was veiled head to toe in black cut a heart shape with a razor into the bare flesh of the other who was dressed only in a red satin skirt. The woman in black then used white paper napkins to make prints of this bloody shape.

On the landing leading to the main space two women cut away bits of each other’s black leotards to reveal flesh, scars, breasts, all of which were weighed and tested as it they were choice cuts of meat.

Meanwhile a woman (who I recognised as Katherine Araniello) used her wheelchair to block us coming and going up the stairs and through the doorway into the main space, her face sometimes alight with mischief but always with the determination not to give way, except on her own terms.

All the performances throughout the course of ‘Old Dears’ amply demonstrated the point made by Nikki Millican in the panel discussion on the Saturday afternoon, concerning the particular power and resonance of work by older artists (of any gender).

For me a specific set of resonances humming between the other pieces and Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty were suggested by remarks made during this panel.

While each panellist offered reflections on their careers in relation to feminism(s), these were framed and in many cases decidedly influenced by a project developed by MacDonald entitled ‘The Red Thread’.

MacDonald conceived this as a way of ‘mapping’ the women who had impacted on her life as an artist and thinker, each one represented as tags hanging on a silken red thread. Macdonald invited the other speakers to contribute to a collective red thread, the one rule being that these should be figures with which they had some sort of direct, personal encounter.

Geraldine Pilgrim (who holds a place of honour on my own ‘red thread’) offered two novelists and its not clear whether she had actually met them or whether true to the mood of ‘Old Dears’ as a whole, she was choosing to ignore the rules. These were Jean Rhys and Angela Carter both of whom are famous for their re-interpretations of female archetypes in a manner that shares some commonalities with Bakhtin’s theories of carnival but re-articulated through a distinctive and original feminine/feminist lens.

It is possible that this ‘thread’ has retrospectively informed the meanings and connections I have made concerning The English Channel, My Life as History and Recalibrating Hope.

Thinking about Carter’s writing certainly informed my reception of Between Menopause and Old Age: Alternative Beauty which can be seen as creating from dark, alternative fairy tales, satirically commenting on and artfully re-inventing the roles accorded to older women in these and other ‘folk’ stories; the ugly sister, the vain, wicked stepmother, the witch, the crone and the hag.

Tying up some threads

Despite my love of Rhys and Carter’s writing and my own use of Bakhtin’s ideas, I am often wary of feminist/women’s work which draws on archetypes because these are slippery things, that even in re-invented mode can as easily trap as liberate. All else aside, deploying such symbols can fall into an essentialism that ignores important differences between women and I have to acknowledge that while it was striking that differences of class, sexuality, physical abilities and nationality were all represented in ‘Old Dears’, it was, as so often the case, an overwhelmingly ‘white’ event.

Without intending to detract from the urgent necessity of addressing this latter issue (across the arts), as Gayatri Spivak famously indicated the very concept of feminism as a politics requires at least a ‘strategic essentialism’. And having started thinking about archetypes, the remarkable force and energy of the performances over the two days of ‘Old Dears’ possibly offered an insight into why, once upon a time, older women were sometimes so feared, they were perceived as ‘witches’.

I can imagine the participants in this event dancing with the devil but this would be the one that according to Bakhtin, appears in the medieval ‘parodical legends and the fabliaux’, a ‘gay ambivalent figure expressing the unofficial point of view [..] There is nothing terrifying or alien in him’. Even so, I’m sure these artists would assert their right to decide upon the steps and call the tune – if-that is- Marcia Farquhar can find the disc.

Bahktin also states that in the schema of the carnival ‘Fear [..] is defeated by laughter…. Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world.’

What was so exhilarating about the shows in ‘Old Dears’ was that even at their most serious they were all laughing at fear; the fear of aging, or failing, or offending, of pain, of insult and ridicule, of their own bodies and histories, of archetypes and even of death itself. And in doing so were refusing to play by anybody’s rules but their own.

This might also include the ‘rules’ of some strands of feminism, which as Weaver stressed in the panel discussion is always plural not singular.

But please, those of us who identify as feminists, let’s disagree, challenge, argue and express anger and disappointment at each other –all this is appropriate because our concerns are serious. But let’s never, ever be afraid to laugh, either at the world, or at ourselves.

None of those participating in ‘Old Dears’ are afraid of laughter and their performances very clearly showed exactly why this title was a joke.

* CRAFT is an acronym frequently used by menopausal women. It stands for ‘Can’t Remember a F***ing Thing’. And in this spirit I just found programme for 'Old Dears' at the bottom of my bag. Artists collaborating with Boliver were Katherine Araniello, Giovanna Maria Casetta, Katharine Meynell, Sheree Rose, Teresa Albor, Kate Clayton, Sarah Kent, Wanda Zyborska, Pascale Ciapp and Helena Waters.

Gerry Harris

Banner image credit:

Rocio Boliver, image courtesy of the artist

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