This essay explores the mythical roots of Pan’s People and in doing so Marisa Zanotti discovers a narrative around young women and men in power that links myth, magic and the BBC. The essay includes links to performances by Pan’s People.
For dance artists growing up in the 1970s in the UK the weekly television performances of the dance group Pan’s People, more than Hollywood musicals or broadcasts of ballet, were often the most immediate example of dance made for the screen.
The role of Pan’s People on the music programme Top Of The Pops (TOTP) between 1968–1976 was to present a choreographic adaptation of a record that was moving upward in the UK charts that week, by an artist who was unable to appear live in the studio. This was before the invention of the video promo. Choreographer Flick Colby (1946-2011) directed camera and choreography however never chose the records she choreographed, sometimes they were changed on the day of broadcast. This resulted in a mixture of well-prepared complex work, conceived as camera-choreography and importantly in relation to in-camera techniques and vision mixing. There were also some disconnected pieces, where the music and the dance form an unusual relationship with more static camerawork such as 1973’s Do You Wanna Dance.
In the canon of dance, not just contemporary dance but perhaps all professional dance, the women of Pan’s People stand out as unique in one very important way: we knew and still know their names. Babs, Dee Dee, Ruth, Sue and Cherry.1 In the 1970s this made them more like a band, which in the 1970s were always male. It is notable that Pan’s People also managed themselves touring Britain and Europe.
The Pan’s People archive comprises fan sites, a BBC archive, a more comprehensive and un-censored archive available easily currently on Youtube including performances on both British and European TV, footage from rehearsals and interviews with the dancers. There is also the autobiography Our Story written by Ruth Pearson, Babs Lord and Dee Dee Wilde (2013).
3. Berger, A (1996) The Latest Word From Echo in New Literary History: Vol 27, No 4 available online.
4. The essay explores the complex figure of Echo in Ovid’s stories in a survey of how Echo has fascinated writers across philosophy and poetry. Berger includes writing by John Brenkman, Maurice Blanchot and Jaques Derrida and through deepening our understanding of the significance of repetition Berger invites her reader to re-position Echo in the Narcissus story. Berger writes about her farewell to Narcissus as ‘an echological magic trick which is even more singular in that, like poetic writing, indeed all writing according to Plato, it comes from repetition itself’. (Berger:1996:online)
The archive of Pan’s People elicits a wide variety of responses, from nostalgia, to desire, horror and perhaps even shame. In this essay I will explore how we were glamoured by televisual techniques used in transmissions of the dances on Top of The Pops and I will also discover links to a mythical past that engages with dance, dancers and the making of dances. In building a picture of Pan I’ve drawn from Robert Graves’ Greek Myths (1955)2 and paintings of nypmhs, satyrs and fauns including Ruben’s Diana and her Nymphs Surprised by Fauns (1638–1640) and Abraham Govaerts’ A Nymph and Satyr (1629). Anne-Emmanuelle Berger’s paper The Latest Word from Echo3 is important in re-positioning Echo and the nymph archetype in The Pan’s People Papers.4
The investigation into the mythical origins of Pan’s People begins by asking who was Pan and who were his people? Pan is often presented as a powerful god, he can cause ‘Panic’ a madness, he is a god of riot and party, a god of dancing and sex, half goat, half man. In our minds a Pan figure is often conflated with Dionysus however the two are very different. Graves describes how Pan was despised by the higher caste Olympian gods for his simplicity and exploited by them for his powers (Graves:2011:102). I began to look for other kinds of evidence and this search revealed a more troubling side to Pan; predominantly in paintings of Pan and other satyr’s in their pursuit, assault and rape of nymphs. Nymphs, in these paintings usually shown naked in the forest, by the sea or in the air (fig.1), were seen as available and fair game for sexual assault by both gods, demi-gods and apparently many male painters who never tired of painting representations of these assaults (fig.2, fig.3, fig.4, fig.5, fig.6). This other side to the god became increasingly significant to my understanding of Pan and to my following the traces of a cultural and historical narrative leading to the 1970s and Pan’s People.
I approached Lea Anderson a choreographer with whom I had worked before, initially as a dancer (Flesh and Blood (1989), Cold Sweat (1990), Birthday (1992)) and latterly as a director and writer of the adaptation of her choreography in Edits Film5 (2012). Freeing the dances of any nostalgic viewing together we decided to approach the dances with the questions What if the dances on YouTube are approached as flawed documents that could be corrected and remediated for today?
Freeing the dances of any nostalgic viewing together we decided to approach the dances with a question. ‘What if the dances on YouTube are approached as flawed documents that could be corrected and remediated for today?’ We then asked ‘if the dances and their recordings are documents, what are they documents of?’ Repeated viewings of Pan’s People in recordings of TOTP revealed different kinds of clues about a fear of the rise of women’s power in the 1970s as a challenge to male power, and in particular a fear of women’s sexual power. We also found evidence of the evolution of technologies and televisual techniques of the 1970s and the magical origins and effects of these techniques.
Television was, and continues to be, driven by the necessity to keep a viewer from changing channels.Television wants us to keep watching. A viewer might be sewn into a linear narrative by having a protagonist with whom they can identify. In TOTP the protagonist would be a pop star looking the sense allowing a viewer to enter into an erotic fantasy. But if there was no pop star, they were replaced by Pan’s People and familiar narratives were replaced by another kind of televisual experience: a screen that kept moving and kept changing. Specific techniques were employed to keep a viewer mesmerised:
A direct gaze to camera
Early use of Chroma Key
Some of these techniques are seen in the TOTP recording of Pan’s People dancing to You Little Trustmaker (1974).
The archive of Pan’s People from TOTP also documents the development of technologies in broadcast television. In the 1970s in the BBC high and low art distinctions were made, perhaps as result the TOTP studio became as a lab for experimentation, particularly in the work of cameramen Keith Salmon6 and John Henshall who pioneered many optical effects through developing lens technologies such as fish eye lenses and multi image prisms7 along with the mounted cameras that give the dizzying moment so characteristic of TOTP.
However in reflecting on the technologies and techniques used in TOTP, the visual trickery of optical backdrops, moving cameras and visual effects, we might also consider that they reveal particular kinds of technological magical properties and effects8 that relate to the concept of Glamour. The word comes from the scots word glamer, meaning a spell that particularly affects the eyes, glamour is sometimes a haze in the air, the effect of a glamour spell is that it makes something appear different to what it really is. The spell worked and we did all keep watching however there was something hidden from us somehow. In researching Pan’s People initially like a magpie I was attracted to the glow, the ‘campery’, an innocence around the dancers performances that suggested a kind of joy. However the more I watched Pan’s People, sometimes for two or three hours on YouTube, I began to be increasingly uneasy. Something wasn’t right.
Shots of Pan’s People were often from a low angle, there are documents of rehearsal footage where camera operators had leered up the dancers short skirts. I realised that while Pan’s People were dancing in tiny shorts, often dressed as little girls, the 1970s was a time when women’s roles were changing. Women growing up in the 1960s had for the first time been able to take control of their bodies with the use of contraceptive pill, women were in the workplace in positions of power, and women and in particular young women had spending power, which as we are so often taught is the only real power.
I began to ask are Pan’s People representative of everything that was wrong with the 1970s? By the end of 2012 something came to light that directly made me re consider my ideas. The opening moments of You Little Trustmaker shows us the presenter Jimmy Savile, who we now know was a serial paedophile and mass rapist, with his arm around a young girl. We look at clips from TOTP very differently in 2016 now knowing that across the BBC there was culture of intimidation, sexual harassment and sexual assault that was normalised. Much as TOTP in the 1970s was as I described distinctive in it’s use and development of camera and vision- mixing technologies, another kind of magical glamour spell continues to be used on the TOTP archive. Jimmy Savile has now been removed from the BBC’s digital archive of documents of TOTP. Who does that help and what happens to our relationship to Pan’s People now framed by Savile?
Anderson and I began to speak about how we might salvage Pan’s People and we devised two key strategies. The first was to work on reconstructions of the dances that removed the glamour to discover what we felt might at their heart. Anderson and I worked to correct the document and add another kind of glamour to You Little Trustmaker, casting across gender and ethnicity and answering the gazing viewer with another kind of gaze. One that was accusatory that took viewers to task. We made two versions of this – one in rehearsal and one in performance. Our second strategy was to locate these reconstructions in a story world: the ‘paper’ A Legion of Echoes. This ‘paper’ took the form of a transmedia narrative unfolding over three days. The narrative locates Pan’s People in a parallel reality of greek myth, in a world similar to ours, as dancers in the choreographer Pan’s troupe, the story is told through status updates, mini movies and tweets by Pan, a dancer Echo and The Ballet Mistress.
Technologies of the 1970s that are now considered ‘lo fi’ and techniques of vision mixing and use of specially designed lenses along with hallucinatory scenographic work, were it appears part of a bigger kind of spell that can traced back to stories about the treatment of young women by men in power. Anderson and I are still working out our response to that spell.
I’m going to finish by saying that like many women Pan’s People don’t need rescuing defending or salvaging, they never were innocent, they never were victims, they did their job. They danced through the 1970s and then did what many dancers do, they moved on. Ruth Pearson managed the groups that followed Pan’s People, Ruby Flipper and Zoo, she then retrained working in local government in IT until her retirement. Cherry Gillespie migrated to acting and sits on the board of the Dancer’s Career Development Fund. Dee Dee Wilde opened her own dance studio, Babs Lord is a yachtswoman and charity fundraiser and Louise Clarke (1949-2012) started a motorbike courier service. Flick Colby continued to choreograph for the BBC until relocating to the US, she died in 2011.
Their final performance Silver Star (1976) sees them celestial, graceful, almost naked, no longer little girls, rising above the 1970s and leaving us behind in the approaching darkness of the Thatcher years.