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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Only then do we understand the journey
As AMICI Dance Theatre celebrates its 25th Anniversary Wolfgang Stange talks to Scilla Dyke about the company's core philosophy and practice that ignites audiences and inspires artists, teachers and practitioners worldwide
'The importance of the "right philosophy" when it is apparent - what it precipitates, how it translates and an absolute belief in people - that we should never close doors, but find ways to include is paramount. We should learn from and become part of the world - sharing a love for dancing - working together - this the most basic value of inclusion.

'The philosophy of the work goes back to that of my teacher and mentor Hilde Holger. Believing in people goes hand in hand with respect for the other person. Without respect there can be no belief and visa versa.

'However in order to have belief, there have to be opportunities for the individuals to take up the challenge within the provision of the Arts.

'Politically people's "Rights" have now been enshrined and there are many opportunities for people with disabilities to take part in the performing arts as well as in most artistic endeavours. This was not so when AMICI started in 1980 nor in fact when I started teaching in 1974.

'AMICI was not born out of a political initiative, but evolved from a progression of work with different groups in the community - dance the focal point. As I taught and choreographed I felt that there was a lot we could learn from each other and this conclusion prompted me to invite three different community groups who shared a love for dancing to work on a dance drama piece together. This was in 1980 and involved non sighted dancers, sighted dancers, dancers with learning difficulties and an actress who was a wheelchair user called Judy Fairclough - who also wrote the script for our first performance called I am not yet dead.

'There is always a way to include people of different abilities as the focus should be on ability and not disability and how to develop their artistic potential.

'The essence of dance has to be explored and developed. 'If we focus on the expression in dance, then surely a different movement vocabulary that is complementary to the individual to express his or her ideas or feelings, is necessary. If we believe in individual expression, then there are no difficulties in implementing this within the choreography.

'If the focus is on learning a technique to extend the body's movement capabilities, then it is possible for instance to teach ballet to physically or mentally different individuals. This can only be successfully achieved, if we once again work on or with the essence.

'What is the essence of a plie? Is it to bend one's knees in the five positions only, or is it to establish the feeling of a counter pull in the body with a straight back. Both are important, but if the individual has no means of bending the knees, is the feeling of counter pull and straight back at that moment more important?

'Is a tendu only the extension of a pointed foot in time to music in three directions? It also involves the isolation of one foot. For a wheelchair user with limited or no movement in the legs and foot it is focussing on that leg and foot, sending energy into this area that matters. Integration is possible if we focus on the individual and help them to be part of the experience that the different dance forms have to offer.

'AMICI has always had a problem fitting into a "slot". It was not part of the development of the disability agenda, as it was not a disability group and it was not a straightforward dance company as it employed people with disability.

'It also fell between the Arts Council's two main funding tranches - viewed neither as Dance nor Drama. Even though AMICI carried the title of Dance Theatre Company, when it came to raising money, we encountered enormous difficulties that remain unresolved even to this day. (Though our first major production in 1980 - I am not Yet Dead - was supported by SHAPE - Shona Reid, the then director, asking me to create a full length production as a result of seeing it and in 1982 AMICI appeared at The Place Theatre London with the now legendary production of RÃ1/4ckblick.)

'Nevertheless this successful endeavour was not to help us when in 1985 we wanted to stage our second major, (total theatre) production Silence - a story about the persecution of the first Christians in Japan. Even though all major roles were taken by people with disability and every performer sang, danced and spoke accompanied by professional musicians, SHAPE were unable to offer the same support, as it did not fit into their "political agenda". However, it was able to provide contacts that materialised into financial support.

'It is so very hard when one does not fit into "agendas", but I can only be true to what I feel at the time and it felt right to do a piece that questioned what is weak and what is strong and who or what is the deciding factor.

'Never having fundraised several AMICI members took it upon themselves to do so. We did not know until the performance was over whether we had enough money to pay our bills. Miraculously we did.

'It was not until 1988 when members of the Arts Council of Great Britain came to see the revised version of Rückblick at the Riverside Studios that we were are asked to apply for funding. For the next few years (1989 to 1995) we were secure - our work financially supported - enabling us to employ an administrator, gain structure and crucially to create new projects.

However, 'changes within the Arts Council and resultant new funding structures i.e. London Arts Board Lottery compounded with changes in our own administration, eroded our existing financial support.

'Different "priorities" with a focus on disability groups and their politicised agendas was good to see... fresh, innovative ideas were developing. Naturally this was to have an effect on AMICI's funding. Whilst AMICI performances were of a very high standard, it would not play its disability card in the way that was expected and therefore lost out.

'AMICI maintained its philosophy to respect and learn from one another with dance and theatre being at its centre.

'As I mentioned previously, AMICI works because it is based on following strong gut feelings. For us it NEVER works to please particular trends or address "flavours of the month". AMICI takes its inspiration for growth from happenings around us...

'After three full-length productions AMICI members had developed their ability to express their creative ideas in choreographic form. This became apparent when observing their contribution to our weekly improvisations. So in 1989 we embarked on Pieces. Four AMICI dancers, two blind members, one member with learning difficulties and a member without apparent difficulties, were invited to create their own pieces for the company and could choose how many members they wanted to use in their choreography. Three outside professional choreographers joined them - Sue Burton, ex Royal Ballet dancer, Nigel Warrack, with a Martha Graham background and my own teacher Hilde Holger who was brought up in European Expressionism. Although AMICI had collaborated with other artists since its inception, this was to be the first time that dance artists were invited to leave their choreographic mark on the company.

'This new input proved so successful that Nigel Warrack returned to choreograph a piece for our 10th anniversary's double bill. Premiered at the Tramway, Glasgow it marked the start of and cemented our 15-year Scottish connection. In fact as part of our 25th anniversary Glasgow's IndepenDance will appear with AMICI members in Royston Maldoom's Four Last Songs at the Lyric Theatre, London. Royston, having been a student of Hilde Holger seems to share a very similar philosophy.

'During 1991 Japanese entrepreneur Harue Murayama sponsored German musician Bernd Asmus to compose a piece of music using Japanese instruments for us a British based company... this, exactly the kind of connection that has enabled AMICI to work with diverse talents in so many different countries. Three AMICI members representing the then core of the company, blind, learning difficulties and no apparent difficulties, performed Fragments of Flight in the Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo. A collaboration between choreographer Margaret Wilson who is blind and myself, it formed part of a double bill with Bron Agis - created by Nigel Warrack and Pius Hickey, who has learning difficulties.

'Our connection with Japan has continued and in 2004 Bhuto dancer Un Yamada was commissioned by Fukuoka City Council to choreograph a piece for herself and two AMICI members - Christine Kugele who is blind and Rosie Leak who has downs syndrome. This was premiered in Fukuoka last November and has its second showing in AMICI's Fusion Festival this June. Appearing on the same bill will be Miyagi Integrated Dance company from Sendai in Japan.

'The creation of different shows with their unique contents develop because something new happens in the group at the time. In 1993 Bill Robins, a wheelchair user with athetoid cerebral palsy joined the company. This created a new direction for AMICI, as we had not employed performers with physical difficulties before. In order to extend Bill's movement experience, AMICI employed two aerial artists Lindsey Butcher and Jeremy Robins able to lift him out of his chair and carry him above their heads. We also devised a moveable platform with a large beanbag to allow him free arm movements without the restriction of the wheelchair. BBC writer Gilly Frazer then created a script for The Journey developed from improvisation during the workshops. Referred to as "Bill's piece" - it formed part of the company's first foreign tour to the Teatr Polski in Warsaw and where AMICI received the Vaslav Nijinsky medal for outstanding artistic achievement.

'AMICI's second foreign tour was in 1995 - the company invited by the Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Berlin to recreate the work Rückblick as part of the 50th anniversary of the death of the artist Käthe Kollwitz. New sections were added to incorporate Bill - now a company member - and his unique way of moving. Company members also spoke in German on stage for the first time.

'The inspiration for our 1996 production was prompted by Hilde Holger's 90th birthday who was still actively involved in teaching dance. The work Hilde formed part of our third foreign trip and in 1998 was performed in Hilde's hometown of Vienna. Although this was to challenge the company financially and "otherwise" each trip deepened trust between company members and boosted their confidence.

'Having connected to the New London Orchestra through workshops, we thought it would be a good idea to employ them for our next venture in 1999. Pieces 2 built on the notion of the original Pieces created a decade earlier and gave "chosen" choreographers the chance to work with an orchestra. Once again we had a mixture of AMICI members and other professional choreographers create on the company.

'For our 20th anniversary in 2000 we pulled out all the stops working with new collaborators - Julia Pascal, script writer; Billie Cowie composer; Barb Jungr, singer; Julian Crouch, theatre director and puppet maker; and for the second time, aerial artist Lindsey Butcher and the New London Orchestra to create a work that looked back on the 20th century, as the new millennium dawned.'

Optimistic that this "combination" would attract financial support from funding bodies the company were again turned down: 'Friends from Austria, Australia and Japan donated money, so we could go ahead. Performers took little or no money to perform and we scraped through.

'The critics hailed the production a success and the Lyric Theatre asked us to repeat the performance the following year. With the promise of financial assistance from a private charity, we managed to take the production to Berlin in 2001.

'That same year we invited the Butterflies Theatre Company - which I had helped set up in Sri Lanka in 1998 - to celebrate 21 years of integrated theatre. Even though I felt this company deserved to get financial backing, our fundraising efforts here in Britain did not bear fruit - the main money raised in Sri Lanka itself - a so called third world country. Life had gone full circle for me personally - bringing the Sri Lankan company to London - because it was in the early seventies in Sri Lanka that I was first inspired to make the performing arts available to differently able people.

'Since 2002 Turtlekey Arts driven by a total belief in AMICI and what it stands for, has been battling on our behalf. And battling is the operative word. As part of our UK-based International Fusion Festival created to celebrate integrated theatre we invited companies that had been connected to AMICI from Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Scotland. We had hoped that this would establish a meeting point - where ideas could be exchanged though performance and workshops - (growing processes, generating understanding) and at the same time benefiting communities locally, across London and in parts of Britain.

'And whilst the Fusion Festival will run this summer it will be on a reduced scale simply because funding has not materialized. We will be providing workshops and performances, but only with performers from Glasgow and Japan. In fact the Japanese company Miyagi have had to raise all their expenses including travel and lodgings just as the Sri Lankan's did in 2001. We feel devastated but grateful that they support AMICI and that they are proud of being with us.

'Our 25th anniversary production Stars are out tonight is in collaboration with Improbable and has leveraged some financial support. We love working with them and they love working with us. It has been a joy sharing ideas and learning from one another. We share a mutual respect, AMICI's core philosophy. Although it is not only about respect, we are also learning new ways of looking at things, which makes this collaboration so fruitful. Using Improbable's expertise in visual effects, the inspiration of their composer Nick Powell and finding ways of tightening the storyline has been just wonderful.

'So, what have we learned in those 25 years? That life is a journey and we are all part of it. Travelling extends our experience. We must not stand still, but move on and learn about the people around us and about ourselves. Many people ask me, how do you see AMICI's development? What have you planned for the future? I can only honestly say, I don't know. The wind will blow us in the right direction as it has done over the past 25 years. I do hope however that we will have many more fruitful collaborations. We will not stop even though there is struggle involved. As Käthe Kollwitz once said: "There is no life without struggle. We must carry the banner high and carry it forward" (1), and that we will do!'

Wolfgang Stange, artistic director AMICI Dance Theatre. AMICI can be contacted at Turtlekey Arts: +44(0)20 8964 5060
Dr Scilla Dyke MBE leads Professional Studies with the Royal Academy of Dance

1. Kollwitz, H. (1968) 2nd Edition, Ich sah die Welt mit liebevollen Blicken: Excerpts from Käthe Kollwitz Diary. Hannover: Fackelträger Verlag Schmidt-Küster GMBH

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Animated: Summer 2005