Wolfgang recalls the first performance of RÜCKBLICK at The Place Theatre in 1981, and the events leading up to it.
After our performance of I AM NOT YET DEAD in 1980, our friend Mrs. Vera Bonhomme, who believed in what I was doing, encouraged me to write a book. She was concerned that other people coming to my classes would write books and use my ideas, which I later discovered was the case. Mrs Bonhomme was living in Coventry but came to London every Thursday to help me to write the book.
The Stange System of Therapeutic Calisthenics was finished in 1981, but I never published it as it was too technical for my liking. I told Mrs. Bonhomme that it had not enough soul, which I thought my work was all about. “Feelings don’t belong in a such a book”, she proclaimed. Then I have to wait until I can do it and the time is right, I thought.
We in AMICI returned to our Wednesday class at St. Andrews. Normansfield had sent the students who were in our performance to nearby Day Centres, so I could no longer work with them. They were replaced by students with multiple difficulties, mainly wheelchair users.
Before we embarked on our 1982 production of RÜCKBLICK we were asked to do a production in 1981 for the “International Year of Disabled Persons”. THE DREAM, as it was called, had only the combined classes of the sighted and the blind dancers. Two young men from Venezuela joined us for this project and all I can remember is a duet between our Chrissie and the rather large Venezuelan called Adolfo that I had choreographed the duet for. We performed, it as I remember, at the West London College Studio Theatre in Barons Court.
1981 was also the year Judy Fairclough was asked to bring The Venturers to Lille in France to be part of celebrating this special year. I had just returned from Sri Lanka when Judy rang me and invited me to go with her to France and choreograph a piece on the theme of Halloween. A week later we left. Graeae Theatre Company had also been invited.
Many things were initiated in that particular year. The BBC commissioned Nick Darke to write the script for a TV series on dance, highlighting Dance for the Disabled. Pedr James was the Director and they had chosen Ben Kingsley to play my character. I wanted my students to play themselves, but there was not such enlightenment in the early days and it was decided that actors should play my students. I was very apprehensive, but my mind was put at rest when I realized that the actors were very sincere and did a thorough character study before they embarked on their task.
They came to several classes at Normansfield, and also observed the students in their daily life at Normansfield. Ben Kingsley had to shadow me for two weeks, observing me at the Stroke Unit, as well as at all the other settings where I was working at the time. I was asked to be the Movement Consultant at the TV Studio. As we were in the process of rehearsing for RÜCKBLICK, I asked Ben if if he would give us the honour of playing the speaking part of Death and he agreed. At the same time Pauline Cox, the make-up artist at the BBC, offered to do the make-up for RÜCKBLICK.
Sadly, RÜCKBLICK was not ready in the early summer of 1982, and by the autumn the promotion of the film Gandhi, in which Ben Kingsley starred, was in full swing and so we lost our Speaking Death. However, Pauline Cox stood by her word and provided the make-up for RÜCKBLICK and all the Amici productions, that followed, and has been supporting us now for 38 years.
In the early summer of 1981, also as part of the International Year of Disabled Persons, I was invited to Australia House in London to watch a production with people with Down Syndrome that had been performed at The Sydney Opera House. It was conceived and choreographed by a South American, I think called Aldo, who had made Australia his home. I was taken aback with the whole professionalism that was displayed. Total artistic integrity was shown by the cast, performing in an internationally known venue with total professional backing from lighting, costume and set design. I was jubilant to see such amazing collaboration. After the performance I met Seona Reid, now Dame Seona Reid, who had taken over SHAPE from Gina Levete and was now running it. Seona had seen our I AM NOT YET DEAD and told me, “AMICI can do something like that. We will provide the professional backing and the finance for it. We are at your disposal.” Well, what a wonderful offer, and even more wonderful was the belief that we would deliver the goods.
As always, I could not just do something because financial support was available. I believed now as then that there has to be a reason and a message. At the end of 1981 I had seen a poster advertising the first exhibition of the work of Käthe Kollwitz in Britain and the bells were ringing in my ears. Käthe portrayed the working-class people of my home town, Berlin. Her husband was a doctor in the working class district of Berlin and so Käthe saw how they suffered from the inequalities in society.
Käthe’s motive for drawing the working-class people was because they gave her in their simple way what she found beautiful. I saw the beauty in the rawness of my students, their honesty and directness that drew me to them. I suppose this is what inspired me to use Käthe’s work for our first professional performance.
Now there was a reason and also a message. I went to Seona and proposed to create " RÜCKBLICK”. Seona being a strong advocate of women’s rights could identify with Käthe Kollwitz and gave us her full support.
Since there was no way I could get the Normansfield students back, I thought of inviting a group of students from Strathcona Education Centre who had joined my dance class at the City Lit. A group of ten students who came in their own mini bus. I approached their teachers Joan and Mark and proposed that they should join our Wednesday AMICI group to work on RÜCKBLICK. Luckily we had the total support of their manager Gerda Lewis who provided us with the transport and allowed her people to come out to the Wednesday evening rehearsals.
I brought books of Käthe’s work to the rehearsals, read passages of her diary and asked some of the students to re-create Käthe‘s sculptures so our blind members could get a basic feel of her work. Gina, knowing of our new venture, brought a real bronze relief of Käthe‘s to the rehearsal. Her friend owned this sculpture and had taken it out of a bank vault where it had been kept for security. This was a very emotional moment for me and for all of us, but in particular for our blind members who were able to feel her work. It was only repeated 13 years later in 1995 when we presented RÜCKBLICK in Berlin and the Käthe Kollwitz Museum there let us touch Käthe‘s sculptures.
Seona stood by her word and commissioned Nick Darke to write a script for RÜCKBLICK. Sally Loughridge and Kate Owen were commissioned to do the costume and set design and Geoff Amos the lighting and the actor Gordon McDonald took Ben Kingsley‘s part. The Place Theatre, the home of the London School of Contemporary Dance and my old school, was chosen as the professional venue. Robin Howard, of The Place, who was passionate about the Martha Graham technique and had opened the first Contemporary Dance School of the Graham technique in Britain, was guided by Graham’s belief that Dancers are Athletes of God. And now I brought my motley group of dancers to the High Temple of Dance.
I proposed five performances, but The Place advised me to have only two. Better to have two half-full-audiences than five sparsely attended performances. This was unchartered water and so I took their advice. Even when the professional actor Gordon did not turn up for the dress rehearsal we were not concerned, as he was good and we felt he would turn up for the first night. But he did not, and so I had to jump in at the last minute. Luckily he had a similar build to mine, so the costume fitted me.
The Place has no curtains and so we all had to be on stage 15 minutes before the audience was let in. Most of the company was on stage, all under an enormous white cloth, representing Käthe‘s sculpture under a dust cloth. I was with my back to the audience and had no idea why we did not start. After nearly an hour on stage, the lights suddenly dimmed and we could start. I am still surprised nobody fainted.
After I inquired why there was this hold up, I was told that some wheelchair users had arrived late and it took some time to get them to the entrance of the theatre. My answer, people had the starting time of the performance, so if they are late, they have to wait until there is an appropriate moment for them to be able to enter the auditorium. The next day we started on time. (Part of the delay was also caused by people literally queuing around the block to get tickets. The theatre admitted later that they could have sold seats for three more performances because of the high demand.)
We had no idea how our performance would be received by the audience. Once the lights were put off after the last image there was an eery silence. When the lights came back on we got an standing ovation with shouts of bravo and stamping of feet. We were dumbfounded, and then it sunk in. After we took our bow, we hugged each other and cried. Not very professional behaviour, but maybe very natural after all the tension beforehand.
Jane Kingshill, an audience member that night, wrote to me afterwards, and here is an extract from her letter. “I was completely overwhelmed by the oneness of it all. Every individual submitted to the whole and yet each individual became more of an individual and not less because of this surrender.” In fact Jane seemed to have understood AMICI in its philosophy to accept and celebrate individuality.
Another letter came from a group of young people with Down Syndrome who studied Creative Writing at the City Lit. This is what they wrote:
Memories of the first RÜCKBLICK
I joined Amici in 1981 (before the first RÜCKBLICK performance), for the ballet barre, but soon realised that there was no room for ego in a draughty old church hall with old concrete floors where nobody cared what you looked like, it was your humanity that counted. That was the essence of the classes run by their inspired teacher Wolfgang and the company which evolved as a result. What he passed on to us from a long line of serious, committed dance artists, including Hilde Holger, was the embodiment of perceiving and bringing out the natural dance expression of every member of the company, whether sight impaired, Down syndrome, in a wheelchair, professional or semi-professional dancers.
At the time it felt like a quiet revolution.
One of my most moving experiences was dancing the Mother’s Dance inspired by the Tower of the Mothers sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, choreographed by Wolf. Three sighted and three visually impaired dancers jete’d and glided across a dark stage to Carmina Burana. It was fast, urgent, tragic, so powerful in its portrayal of women’s determination to survive and protect in the face of terrible adversity. Because of our trust for each other, flinging ourselves into the black, reaching out, we became more than our individual contributions, we became a tower of hope artistically, personally and spiritually.
No matter where I am, when I hear that music I am straight back there, alive in the moment. Amici is made up of endless privileged experiences like this.
It was such an exciting time for us, getting the recognition for Wolfgang’s work. I loved performing at The Place, probably my favourite location, there was a feeling of intimacy there. And I remember the long wait under the cloths. We were all quite nervous in our little huddle, and practised slow gentle breathing to keep us calm. Then the sound of the aircraft and falling bombs took us into another world and a different kind of fear gripped us.
The Nightmare scene was always a bit of a nightmare, having to count and hope we were all doing the same thing at the same time. The music and words, especially the Cuckoo song were so powerful. The audience reception was just incredible.
There was such a wonderful sense of togetherness in the Dance of the Mothers, and the final death scene with Colin gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
As with other Amici productions, the tremendous trust we had in each other carried us through the difficult moments.
When we started rehearsing for the new show in the autumn of 2019 I was keen that the Mothers Dance and The Crosses should be included. For me, I had just had a son, and the dances in the show resonated with me. To this day they still make me cry.
RÜCKBLICK was very special in that Amici, the company we now have, was built on the inclusion of students from the Strathcona Theatre Group who came from the Social Education Centre and attended weekly. They were a great addition - they were used to taking direction, and like us all became riveted by the story of Kathe.
Wolfgang from the very start built the production on ideas from the weekly classes and his genius for making each and everyone of us give of our best makes him a great choreographer. That is not to say he wasn’t strict and knew exactly what he wanted.
I could not believe I was finally going to appear on stage and nearly died of stage fright before the first night, but then Wolfgang said, “Come on, who is going to look at you?” Just what I needed.
Carmina Burana- gosh, the music is heaven to dance to, and the Sanctus, where the whole company joins around Hilary. When they used it for a car advert a few years ago I was so cross. When I last heard it at the proms a gentleman offered to buy me a drink in the interval to ask why I had been crying. It was lovely to tell him about Amici.
To add to the funny story about “Who is going to look at you?”, I was so bound up in ideas of going to the ballet at the opera house that I wanted to present Hilary, the star of our show, with a bouquet at the end of first night. “Absolutely not!”, said Wolf, “There are no stars in this production.” And to prove it we all got a flower from him after the show! Even the royal ballet stars who have danced with us don’t get any special treatment.
When, after the brief silence the audience gave us a standing ovation and I stood on a packed stage with the best dance company in the world I thought my heart would burst with joy. Never in a million years did I believe this would be one of my greatest achievements.
There is a duet from RÜCKBLICK on You Tube
Here are a few paragraphs that describe how I felt about the first performance of RÜCKBLICK. I remember all too well sitting under those dust sheets for an hour, shaking and sweating, not knowing what was going on. In true Amici style we stayed still and held hands!
Since the age of three I have always loved to dance and that is exactly what I did, but when I was aged nineteen studying dance at college I was asked to leave due to deterioration in my eyesight. It felt like this was the end of my world.
Some years on I was acting in Graeae Theatre Company. After a performance at the Soho Theatre, Wolf came to chat and all of a sudden my world opened up again. He told me about Amici; there was a way I was going to be able to dance. Finally, about eighteen months later, I was able to attend my first class with Amici ,which was unbelievably wonderful. Wolf and Amici welcomed me with open arms. The company enveloped me with love and care and I felt free to dance without being judged. I was not alone. Wolf always had time for everyone, he always seemed to know how to draw the best from each of us.
Then I found out that we were going to perform this amazing piece about Kathe Kollwitz’ life at the Place Theatre. This was really beyond my wildest dreams. I could dance again and express my true self within the most wonderful group of people. Together we were a strong force to be reckoned with and at the centre was passionate, determined and loving Wolfgang.
The world of dance was very narrow-minded at that time. It was all about ‘perfection’, whatever that is. Your body had to look a certain way, you had to be able to move in a certain way and we were to perform in the epicentre of this way of thinking. I am sure we were perceived as that very weird group. Attitudes that we were not real artists pervaded the air. At the end of the first performance there was a long silence and then the whole auditorium erupted: hand clapping, foot stamping and shouting “Bravo!”. After that we were seen differently.