Mill Girls and Militants at Preston’s Flag Market and the Harris Museum

The centenary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK has inspired a huge variety of creative outputs, including books, exhibitions, and even a few of my own blog posts (see everything I’ve written about Vote 100 here). On 27th of October, I went to see a performance piece that creatively engaged with the suffrage centenary in an entirely different way. Mill Girls and Militants is inspired by Lancashire’s suffrage stories, and created by Ludus, a Lancaster-based dance development charity.

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Mill Girls and Militants on the Preston Flag Market on Saturday 27th October 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance took place in Preston’s Harris Museum, and on the Flag Market outside. A combination of music and dance, the performance was the culmination of a summer of activities and research designed to connect women in Preston, Lancaster, and Burnley with local suffrage history. It was performed by the Ludus Youth Dance Company and local community groups, and was recorded with special Virtual Reality cameras, which means the performance will be available as a VR experience, increasing the number of people who can experience it and creating a teaching resource.

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A defiant group of suffragettes on the second floor of the Harris Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance began on the Flag Market, with a wonderful rendition of ‘Nana was a Suffragette,’ a song written by Jules Gibb. Dancers then took on the role of the women of Lancashire, working their shift in the mill as word of a pro-suffrage meeting spreads. Beyond that, the ‘narrative’ became less easy to follow (for me, anyway!). The audience followed the women into the Harris Museum, where groups performed on three different floors. We were all then evicted from the museum, replicating women’s experiences of being banned from museums and art galleries after suffragettes damaged exhibits. One of the most famous examples is the slashing of The Rokeby Venus, a painting by Diego Delazquez, in the National Portrait Gallery by Mary Richardson in 1914. We were led back to the Flag Market, where the ‘protest’ continued. Each of the earlier sections had been performed by smaller groups, but this one involved the whole cast, communicating a real sense of collective power. The choir sung again, and the performance culminated with the whole cast flipping their aprons around the reveal the flags and colours of various pro-suffrage organisations.

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The flags of different suffrage organisations were revealed as part of the performance’s finale (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t often ‘get’ modern dance performances, I struggle to connect with the story they are telling, or the emotion they are trying to convey. And I will admit that there were parts of Mill Girls and Militants that I didn’t understand. However, I enjoyed the performance, which was definitely the most creative way that I have seen the suffrage centenary engaged with over the last 12 months, and I can see its potential for engaging the general public. Lots of people who were in town for other reasons stopped to see what was going on, and who knows, perhaps a few of them went home and did a bit of research on Edith Rigby or Selina Cooper, or any of Lancashire’s suffrage campaigners. I also liked the way that Mill Girls and Militants used the space of Preston’s city centre; the Flag Market is a large open space which has probably witnesses hundreds of protests over the years, and the more enclosed spaces of the Harris Museum created a completely different atmosphere.

Thanks to the VR experience that is being produced of the performance, Mill Girls and Militants is not yet over. It will be interesting to see how this next stage of the project develops, and whether it is as effective in virtual reality as it was in real life.

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