Impermanence – Lady Blackshirt – streamed from Bristol

Tom Cassani in <I>Lady Blackshirt</I>.<br />© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)
Tom Cassani in Lady Blackshirt.
© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)

Lady Blackshirt

Bristol Old Vic at Home
Streamed on 10 May 2021 and available until 30 May

This film by Roseanna Anderson and Joshua Ben-Tovim begins with three fleeting scenes, interwoven with the opening credits: Tom Cassani descended vertically from the flies above the Bristol Old Vic stage, rotating as he hung from a metal ring apparently attached to his hair; two other men ran away from some unseen pursuer; and finally a fourth man sat, quietly smoking in an artist’s studio with “1914” in gold balloons hanging above his head. Such random imagery set the scene for a film that curated thirty contributions selected from a total of one hundred artists responding to 100-year-old artefacts from magazines and cabaret clubs. The end result is a patchwork of miniature films overlaid in eight chapters, lasting just over an hour: sub-titled ‘A Meditation on Modernism and Extremism’ it is absorbing, challenging, never boring and always surprising.

The Lady Blackshirt of the title was Mary Richardson, a Suffragette who slashed the painting of Venus in the National Gallery in protest over Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike. Chapter 5 (Violence & Inspiration) began with Isla Badenoch presenting Richardson’s story as told in a recording of her own aristocratic voice, narrating the detail of how she evaded the police to slash the painting – with a “butcher’s chopper hidden up my left sleeve” – before being bundled back to Holloway Prison. In 1934, this revolutionary for a righteous cause became head of the Women’s Section of the British Union of Fascists, hence the moniker “Lady Blackshirt”. Bringing social insurgence up-to-date were camera shots of angry men confronting police with riot shields.

Chihiro Kawasaki and Kennedy Junior Muntanga in Lady Blackshirt.© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)
Chihiro Kawasaki and Kennedy Junior Muntanga in Lady Blackshirt.
© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)

The opening chapter – Immortality and Lost Love – featured a passionate partnered dance for Kennedy Jr Muntanga and Chihiro Kawasaki, in a tented, darkened structure to a rasping song. Olivia Grassot prepared for a night out on four split screens followed by more of Cassani held uncomfortably aloft by his hair. Poetry (notably Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Sight – “Tomatoes, redder than Krakatoa’s fire, oranges like old sunsets over Tyre….’) is mixed with an academic argument about embodied truth and another gravelly song against a backdrop of flashing images of people in masks, a transgender mermaid and Grassot now dressed up with nowhere to go.

Chapter 4 (Will to Survive) started with reference to an article, written in 1920, entitled New Age by a long-forgotten author, M.M. Cosmoi, reflecting on ‘dark and dismal’ themes of Aryanism and racism, given stark reality by the narrator who casually revealed that his relatives all perished in the Holocaust. It was a powerful treatise on how such horror begins with ‘negative thoughts being put into people’s heads’. This led into a powerful and intimate backstage duet between Oxana Panchenko and Harry Alexander that seemed in stark contrast to the preceding text, attractively created and performed. And then, a brief tale about a passport photo of an unknown man that lay on the pavement outside the narrator’s flat for a year before disappearing.

Oxana Panchenko and Harry Alexander in Lady Blackshirt.© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)
Oxana Panchenko and Harry Alexander in Lady Blackshirt.
© Marta Vitiello. (Click image for larger version)

Chapter 6 (Faust & Chaos) returned to the artist’s studio of the opening credits, now messed up with the golden balloons gone, a tray of drinks awaiting drinkers and the artist now dressed in a bath towel! Nothing happened. Blackness and then expletives in a gangster voiceover followed by a revolving dartboard and some impressive card tricks led to the funniest episode in Thom Shaw’s film based upon a 1912 article praising a little known author named Frank Harris.

Chapter 7 (Native and Alien) started with a close-up of a toilet flushing before the camera panned across to catch a man in a barely-filled bath messily eating a large chunk of roast chicken; leading into a challenging sequence about humans as “rapacious parasites” with people fighting each other in the New Year sales and Sonya Cullingford performing manically on a wooden bridge.

Ominous grey skies, images of violence and a man screaming on a rooftop suggested that all was not to end well, leading to a cat noisily eating a roast chicken; another gravel-voiced song, performed by Andy Balcon, about the executed IRA soldier, Kevin Barry followed a blast against British Colonial rule in the six counties; then a striking solo by Cree Barnett Williams; and more of Cassani spinning by his hair. The finale returned to the Bristol Old Vic stage with a group dance to Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again, which in spite of the assertion in the closing credits was not written by her but by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles.

Several of the 30 contributions were momentary glimpses (Valerie Ebuwa and Anders Duckworth had come and gone before I registered it was them) and inevitably the whole was an uneven bag of rambling polemics and memorable performances, which had both stand-out and instantly forgettable imagery. It was nonetheless compulsive viewing with complex suggestions about modernity and extremism coming in overlapping waves (I watched it three times before writing this review). If you have enough time on your hands, the full 100 works can be seen at (#Decadeonline).

About the author

Graham Watts

Dance Writer/Critic. Member of the Critics' Circle, Chairman of the Dance Section and National Dance Awards Committee. Writes for leading dance magazines & websites - in UK, Europe, USA, Japan & cyberspace. Graham is based in London.

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