DANCE ON LOCATION 016: No. 6 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Bristol, UK

Season two of the footSTEPS short dance films heads to Bristol, England, and I meander through an abandoned heavy anti-aircraft battery, near Bristol's BT tower, now covered with COVID-19 themed graffiti.

In the shadow of Bristol's famous BT tower, lies a monument of twentieth century British history. The No. 6 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery is now broken and slowly crumbling, covered in green shrubbery and fresh graffiti. Whilst it may be the canvas for many of Bristol's street artists, one day in early September it also became the backdrop for a new dance film.

DISCLAIMER: This film was recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions being tightened in the UK in September 2020.

According to The Derelict Miscellany, Bristol was the fifth most bombed city in the British Isles during World War II, citing six major raids between the end of 1940 and the Spring of 1941. The No. 6 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery at Bristol was one of the city's lines of defence against such attacks.

My research tells me that this site was one of three different types of battery that were built for use during World War II. Whilst Bristol was designed for heavy guns, others were designed for light guns or unguided rockets. Bristol was strategically chosen as a heavy gun site given it's location on the coast, close to large cities. Historic England provides some interesting details of similar sites throughout the country, including the size of the guns that would have been used at sites such as this one.

If you're interested in learning more about how Bristol defended attacks from the air throughout the period of 1937-1944, the history department at the University of Bristol host a very interesting pamphlet on their website. Written by historian John Penny and published by the Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, The Air Defence of the Bristol Area 1937-1944 details how Bristol came to have air defences such as that at the No. 6 battery, and the people involved in the fight to defend Bristol against attacks from the air.

Originally built as a permanent battery in 1940, the buildings here at Bristol have since been abandoned for quite some time. What remains at the site includes a variety of buildings, some built to hold the guns themselves, and others designed for offices and storage.

The No. 6 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery at Bristol is now home to the work of various graffiti artists. I was really impressed with the standard of work here, in a variety of different graff styles. In particular, I found myself drawn to the work of John D'oh, a Bristol-based street and graffiti artist who's most recent work at the battery was inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK government's response to it.

Describing himself as often inspired by film, anime and comics, John D'oh has used images of our Prime Minister, and even of Dopey from the classic 1937 animated Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to make clear his feelings about our current global situation, with messages such as "Back to work... Your money or your life" attributed to Boris Johnson, and the line "You clapped for the NHS, so don't go and be dopey" next to Dopey's likeness holding a beer. If you like his work, you can check out some of his merchandise here.

John D'oh wasn't the only artist at the No. 6 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery to have responded to the pandemic through his art. Another artist had painted a giant representation of what the COVID-19 virus would look like under a microscope, next to the message "Keep Safe." Seeing these pandemic-inspired pieces placed on an abandoned military site greatly influenced my own dance-based response to the site.

The Dance

I like the close focus on my face at the beginning of this film. This challenged me to move in a very restricted space. I responded by presenting my bent wrists to the camera, arms moving in close proximity to my face and shoulders switching from side to side. The effect is one of feeling confined, before I take a step out into a much wider space. Whilst I am in one moment constricted in some way, in the next there's a strength in my movements - as I step from the small space into the larger one my fists are clenched, my arms punching. I am on the attack.

I found a really interesting feature in that first room - there was a small hole in the roof, and a single thorny vine had grown down through the ceiling. It hung about a metre and a half from the concrete above. I spun my arm around it, wanting to draw attention to its existence - highlighting how nature always creeps in when humanity leaves a space.

As I moved through the rest of this first building, I discovered a window and immediately felt drawn to it. I reached through the window, staying firmly inside, but desperately straining beyond the concrete border. There's definitely something about feeling confined and wanting to reach out in this film, which seems very apt at the moment.

In the second half of the film, I am visibly struggling. There are two things behind this - 1) that little hill up from the first set of concrete rooms to the open space above is a lot steeper than it looks(!); and 2) lockdown. I have noticed that my fitness definitely dropped a level during the UK lockdown. I didn't leave the house for a full six weeks after the lockdown was first announced in March, because I was very anxious about the pandemic (and to be honest, I still am). Whilst I tried to keep fit in the garden, using cans of baked beans as weights and investing in a new skipping rope, I don't think that I was maintaining the same kind of fitness that is required for dance. As a result, on those occasions in these films where I have gone hell for leather during certain sections, attacking the camera with both force and speed, I have found myself a little shorter for breath than I would usually be.

Despite my initial frustration at getting out of breath so quickly whilst making this film, I came to see how it actually really works with the film. The presence of the COVID-19 themed graffiti in the background reminds us how so many things - including personal fitness - have changed for everyone during this time. The fact that I struggle up that steep hill is a stark reminder of the struggles we have all felt.

The very last section of this film is perhaps even more of a struggle - it's frantic, fraught with confusion, different kinds of movements thrown next to each other. For me, this represents a sense of confusion, a reaching out without knowing what I might find.

The experience of creating these dance films has built my confidence in being in outside spaces again, but we will now put the creation of these dance films on hold as the restrictions tighten again (don't worry, we recorded lots of films before the restrictions were tightened, we've got loads in the bank that will be posted regularly on this site over the next few months, so keep checking back or subscribe on the homepage for updates).

Throughout seasons 1 and 2 of footSTEPS, I've danced in many abandoned buildings and urban exploration sites. Check them out at the links below:

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