On 15 April 2016, twenty-six handbags and their owners took to the stage when artist Geraldine Pilgrim’s celebratory performance, Handbag, moon-walked its way to Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre. Seen as an opportunity to explore the library and its theatre as the location for new and unique encounters as part of the Library as Laboratory commission, this one-night-only experience left the Library locals boogying the night away.
Originally commissioned by and performed for the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre, Handbag has been continuously re-imagined and performed by hundreds of women nationally, and internationally, as a feel-good display of female empowerment. The artist behind it all, Geraldine Pilgrim is well-known for her evocative site-specific performances, including Handbag, and she can often be found working in unusual buildings and locations – this time, it was a library.
In late March 2016, Leighton Buzzard locals were invited to hear more about becoming the newest stars of Handbag at two inspirational talks by Geraldine hosted in a nearby café, Ollie Vee’s, and in the Library itself. With no previous dancing or performing experience required or an upper age limit, a group of women – young and old, mums, students and grannies – came together to join Geraldine and the women who had gone before them on their handbag-dancing journey.
Rehearsals were held on two Monday evenings in April, and directed by Geraldine, the twenty-six participants, handbags of all shapes and sizes in tow, began to dance around their handbags in any way they wanted, as if no one was watching, in a liberating act of self-expression.
For the performance night, the theatre was an empty space, a single mirror ball was turning, a caretaker was sweeping away the residue of a previous event and a section of the floor was separated off by crowd barriers in anticipation of the audience. Then the space was transformed as a beat began and one-by-one, the theatre was adorned with handbags and local women in dresses fit for ballrooms who danced with eyes closed, heads back and smiling, to an iconic 1980s track. With an audience of friends, family and the just plain curious, who were guided by the artist into the initially empty theatre, Handbag, a short and sweet immersive experience of only fifteen minutes, was performed five times. And for each of these fifteen minutes, the library, the theatre, the dancers and the audience were united in an uplifting and thought-provoking encounter.
“What a Friday” Handbag Audience
“Handbag power!!” Handbag Audience
“A strong affirmation and expression of female independence” Handbag Performer
“I’ll never forget this wonderful experience” Handbag Performer
“Meeting a different range of people was amazing!” Handbag Performer
“A witty and wistful performance that, in a few delirious moments, succinctly makes the point that no woman needs a man when she has her handbag in tow” Lyn Gardner, The Guardian