From women’s suffrage to fascism. Venus by Impermanence

From women’s suffrage to fascism. Venus by Impermanence

Created in collaboration with writer Peter Clements and composer Li Yilei, and with choreography by its seven performers, the undoubted highlight of Venus, a quadruple bill of new work from Bristol-based dance theatre company Impermanence, is its title work, which holds up a mirror to the life of Suffragette Mary Richardson, played by Roseanna Anderson.

That title comes from The Toilet of Venus (known as The Rokeby Venus) by Diego Velázquez, vandalised by Richardson at the National Gallery in 1914 in protest against the voting laws of the time. It goes way beyond that and her then friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst (Mayowa Ogunnaike), however, particularly looking at length at her association with Oswald Mosely and her leadership of the Women’s Section of the British Union of Fascists. She would ultimately die a lonely death in 1974.

A hefty dash of artistic licence allows Richardson’s slashing of the painting to sort of open up a time-space fissure that reveals a cabaret behind, fronted by colourful compère Alessandro Marzotto-Levy as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian founder of Futurism and an apologist for fascism and violence. It’s all part of a creative, innovative approach to the narrative that often delights but occasionally frustrates.

Alessandro Marzotto-Levy (centre) and Impermanence in Venus
Photo Paul Blakemore

Quickly moving on, the most powerful part of the work illustrates Richardson’s association with Moseley. Suffragettes and black shirts might appear rather different ideologies although a surprising number of women did shift from one to the other. In fact, as the voiceover notes, they have several things in common including strong leadership and the confronting of  conventional, mainstream politics.

Kennedy Jr. Muntanga is outstanding as the leader of the British fascists. A figure brimming with power and menace, his dance illustrates the darkness of Moseley’s words perfectly in a commanding and formidable solo. His black shirt followers are equally threatening. And all this just a stone’s throw from Cable Street, scene of a series of violent clashes between the Metropolitan Police, there to protect a march by the British Union of Fascists and various anti-fascist demonstrators in 1936.

As clever as it is, and a few did laugh out loud, the comedy doesn’t always hit the mark. It is certainly sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. Joshua Ben-Tovim and Kip Johnson’s danced and lip-synched excerpts from Sue Lawley’s awkward 1989 Desert Island Discs interview with Lady Diana Moseley in particular are very clever, though.

Mayowa Ogunnaike as Emmeline Pankhurst
and Roseanna Anderson as Mary Richardson in Venus
Photo Paul Blakemore

Towards the end, the mood changes dramatically and we see Richardson, alone in Hastings, writing her memoirs. A final duet in which they reach for but neither touch nor see each other illustrates beautifully the gulf that now separates them. Those memoirs avoid any mention of her involvement with fascism. History rewritten, which was ever the case, and as Venus and most other art does to some extent too.

The opening three items each have promise but are ultimately less successful. Best is Ben-Tovim’s Enemy of the Stars, a 15-minute adaptation of Wyndham Lewis’s 1914 play. Like that original, it’s uncompromising and full of contradictions. Meaning is unclear, especially when one of the dancers appears to have a breakdown towards the end. But you cannot fault the physicality as Johnson and the super-lithe Muntanga battle against each other, the movement tone shifting between angry realism and gorgeous lyricism as they make clever use of Wilton’s split level stage. It’s all backed by a disquieting score by Benjamin Oliver (based on an original co-composition With Holly Harding) that magnifies the pent-up tension.

Roseanna Anderson in Feral
Photo Jake Duncan

Feral is a melancholic 11-minute film based on the book: Feral, Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot, who also appears on screen in grubby suit dragging his equally dirty kayak over flooded land while collecting discarded rubbish and a dead bird. An elegy to humankind’s lost relationship with the natural world, it is beautifully edited. Shots and locations pitch beauty (notably Anderson in the ruins of Tintern Abbey) against decline and decay (distant shots of a vast rubbish dump) to a mournful recorded string and piano score by Harding played by London Symphony Orchestra.

Cosmic Yoghurt sounds like it should be a work by Michael Clark. In fact choreographed by Anderson, it’s a dance that attempts to channel the imagination of Anglo-Irish surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who, after time in London, France, Spain and New York, finally settled in Mexico City.

Cosmic Yoighurt
(pictured: Oxana Panchenko, Yos Clark and Bryony Pennington)
Photo James Randall

It’s full of discordant, disconnected elements, and any number of animalist motifs and sculptural, portrait poses that presumably are inspired by the artist’s paintings. There’s also a lot of costumes and a great deal of floaty material. Indeed, some of the dance suggested strongly Isadora Duncan. But, despite the best efforts of Anderson, Ogunnaike and Oxana Panchenko, Cosmic Yoghurt struggles to say much about Carrington herself, what we do learn coming from vocal excerpts including, “You’re trying to intellectualise something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time!” Precisely.

Impermanence certainly have ambition. Venus is a impressive-looking, inventive, varied programme. The company’s dancers are excellent. But I can’t help feeling that its title work, which certainly gives plenty of food for thought, would have stood much better on its own. The evening left a definite feeling of what might have been.