SILENCE: THE PLACE THEATRE, MARCH 1985
Wolfgang and members of the cast remember the creation and performance of SILENCE in 1985
My friend, the dancer Sheila Style, presented me with the Japanese novel
‘Silence’ by Shusako Endo, as a gift. I was engrossed by the book and felt driven to use it as the basis of an AMICI production. But the story, about the persecution and struggle of the first Christians in Japan, was not what attracted me to it. For me, the central concern of the book is faith: faith and belief in a religious, political or humanitarian ideology; belief and trust in someone very close to you.
Amici’s production of SILENCE, which is loosely based on Endo’s book, can also be interpreted as an examination of our response under pressure, and the changes that occur when our source of support fails to acknowledge our personal needs. When there is only silence. The central theme is of loneliness and isolation; of being robbed of one’s strong faith by the continuing silence of those who should be giving support. Having witnessed the struggle of my students, in particular on the psychiatric wards and day centres of our NHS hospitals, I knew I had to create SILENCE and to dedicate it to them.
Following the great success of RüCKBLICK, I thought it would be easy to convince SHAPE to support us once again. No such luck. Seona Reid, director of SHAPE, could identify more with the struggle of working-class Berliners portrayed by a woman artist than with the struggle of Japanese peasants trying to find their freedom through Christian doctrine, portrayed by a male novelist.
SHAPE was, however, good enough to give us their fundraising contacts that had enabled them to secure the financial sustainability of Rückblick. So, with no experience in fundraising, AMICI members Ann Ballard, David Rowlands and Barbara Lawrence met regularly to plan a fundraising strategy and write letters to potential donors. Eventually they raised an incredible 5000 pounds.
Luckily, George Beven managed to create a most memorable stage and costume design on a shoestring and neither he nor Iris Andrews, our wardrobe manager and costume maker asked for any fees. Not only did George design the costumes and set, he also designed the poster and leaflets as well as the programme. This he would do for the next 13 years.
Seona was not alone in disapproving of the theme, as one of our AMICI members was constantly negative about the rehearsals and told me that it would not work. There were moments when I wanted to throw in the towel, but then I saw such extremely powerful performances from the leading performers, who all had learning difficulties, that my faith was restored.
I had chosen Pius Hickey as a weak, traumatized individual who was to betray the priest he loved. I had seen Pius as an amazing comedian and thought he would be great in a dramatic role. He did not disappoint me, as he gave a truly heartrending performance as Ino Kichijiro, the Japanese peasant who has converted to Christianity but who renounces his faith when faced with torture and certain death. Ian Willis was a natural in the dual role as Geisha and the Virgin Mary whereas Reynard Gayle was superb as the intellectual, slightly aloof priest Sebastian Rodrigues. Chrissie’s screams of agony as the wife Omatsu, witnessing the slow drowning of her husband Mokichi, will stay with me until the end of my days. Danny Kingshill, who I had spotted in MIRANDA’S DREAM when we performed RüCKBLICK at the Young Vic, portrayed Christovao Ferreira, guiding us through the confused mind of Sebastian as his powerful conscience.
However, the negative force within the group remained, and caused me constant pain and doubt. At the dress rehearsal I came close to a breakdown. I suddenly caved in and saw no merit in the piece anymore. I had succumbed to the negativity, and had I been working alone I would have cancelled the performance, taking the blame and the shame. However, I could not get out of doing it as everybody had put so much work into it. I suddenly felt like the priest in the piece as I had lost my faith. It was ironic, but it was true.
My redemption only came on the second night of the performance when the dancer and choreographer Anitra Shore came up to me after the performance and said, " This was about me, wasn't it?" and burst out in tears. We both embraced and cried, and I said, " It is about all of us". She had understood and I knew I had reached at least one person in the audience. It was not only her, as I discovered afterwards, when people wrote to me expressing their inner feelings. I had never envisaged that it would have such a profound impact on individuals in the audience.
Pius, of course, gave one of the most memorable performances. When I explained to him in rehearsal that in his role as Ino Kichijiro, he had to stamp and spit on the image of Christ, I was not sure how he would cope, being a practising and believing Roman Catholic. I told him he was acting, and it was not real, but that I had to see his hatred for the image that had put him in this terrible position. I added, “But after you have trampled and spat on the image, I must see your remorse, as you really did not want to do it.”
Pius suddenly produced this truly extraordinary and spine-chilling display of hate, and then screamed and started pulling his hair when he realized what he had done. At that moment I became scared and thought he had gone over the top. “Pius, are you alright?” I almost screamed. Pius ‘snapped out of it’, looked at me and calmly asked, “Why wasn’t it right?” Chrissie standing at the side just strongly proclaimed “My God, what a powerful performance.” And that was only the first rehearsal.
It was our most theatrical production so far. Under the guidance of Danny, the cast had to play instruments, sing, and of course dance. Richard Lohan and David Johnson provided us with superb percussion and Kate Pyper not only danced with us but also provided amazing woodwind when needed. As I said, total theatre.
One final recollection about SILENCE. The Strathcona Theatre Group always came to our flat after they finished their day at the Centre and we had tea and biscuits together before we went over to St. Andrews for the Wednesday evening rehearsal. It was our final class before Christmas, and I wanted to use the last half hour for a little Christmas party.
Possibly influenced by his experience of being in Strathcona Theatre Company, Pius proclaimed seriously, “We don‘t want a party, we want only to rehearse tonight.” My answer was, “I am also for rehearsal, in fact I am pushed with time and desperately need more rehearsal, but AMICI is about people and friends and not only about professional expertise. My teaching is about sharing and caring and that has to be developed just as much as the professional attitude. When you are rehearsing with AMICI, you are part of that philosophy, developing on two fronts.” We had the rehearsal, and then we had the party.
Memories from the Cast
I was so appreciative of all the memory-triggering photos of the rehearsals and the performance of Silence that Wolf sent to me! All those expressive hands and deeply emotional faces bring the memories flooding back. They were such special and extraordinary times and to be a member of the cast and an integral part of each of the performances leaves one full of enormous pride.
It’s very tempting to try and spot yourself in the pictures of the cast, but as the costumes and makeup were so clever and skilful, it makes it very hard to distinguish between us... unless of course you’re one of the main characters!
Just how Wolfgang knits aspects of each rehearsal together, from the early days of its inception, based on the novel, to compiling an extraordinary whole which is the performance has always remained a total mystery. His imaginative interpretation of the complex and painful story of SILENCE with such a diverse group of individuals with just a few hours of weekly rehearsals on consecutive Wednesday’s over the many months is just extraordinary.
Driving across London from Deptford, in the south east to Amici classes in West Kensington during the late afternoon rush hour, after a full day’s teaching was always my treat to look forward to on Wednesday evenings.
Friendships with the Strathcona Theatre Company students quickly became established. Their warm, welcoming hugs on arrival and the anticipation of moving and dancing together was always a joy.
The serious ballet barre at the start of the class in St Andrews Church Hall, the spontaneous improvisations with the simplest of props accompanied by live music from talented musicians and Wolf’s amazing warmth and energy were the evening’s icing on the cake.
I had the added bonus of travelling for part of my car journey with Katie Portal and Chrissie, so it became an opportunity to discuss the rehearsals so far, to enthuse over the live music, to attempt to work out the complexities of the story... and of course to catch up with our own lives outside Amici!
Another of Wolf’s many talents was to discover the right student for each of the major roles. Reynard was so perfect as Rodrigues: a tall handsome young man with the most expressive hands and body. Ian was brilliant as the Virgin and the Geisha girl with his lovely dance movements and a sensitive softness about his persona. Kevin Pyke was the perfect choice for Ichizo, Jim Lincoln was impressive as Inoue and Margaret Wilson as Sen and the three beautiful women in Hilary, Maggie and Elaine who together formed the perfect religious picture. Then there was Chrissie Kugele as Omatsu, whose ear-piercing screams were unforgettable.
I was one of the Samurais with Chris Collins, Joan Greening, Kevin Pyke, Seamus Kavanagh, Barb Lawrence, Dimitri Roukos and David Rowlands, and what an extraordinary role it was to play with the powerful presence of the others.
SILENCE was also the most memorable production where George Beven became so intricately involved with designing all of our costumes, our make-up and the stage design. It was a marathon contribution and he became an extraordinary support to both Wolf and to all the cast members.
It’s difficult to believe that this amazing production was 35yrs ago when we were all so much younger, of course! Thank you Wolf for enabling us all to be part of SILENCE, a most beautiful, powerful and painful dance theatre production.
I haven't kept a 1985 diary to help me out this time! I was continuing to be involved politically active at that time and so life was busy all round.
I have found a mini poster and a leaflet advertising SILENCE at The Place Theatre, 19th-23rd March 1985 at 8pm. The description states 'A dance theatre performance based on the novel ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo, presented by handicapped and able-bodied performers'. (For some years/decades since then, language in the UK around disability (and more) has changed - no longer is the word 'handicapped' used linked to disability issues, although perhaps it may be different elsewhere.)
I recall enjoyment at performing at The Place - I seem to recall it had a personal feeling to the actual venue, that made a difference. I recall that Wolfgang was stressed at times and it must have shown as we were collectively worried for him. His heart and soul went into every rehearsal, performance, and person, and he was 'stretched' thin at the time, I believe.
My memory is failing me slightly around the subject of SILENCE, I think because I had trouble with marrying some of the elements of the book with the ethos of Amici and disability and the arts. Despite that, what does stand out is the extraordinary make-up and the inspiring piece of artistry in dance form performed by Ian Willis as the Geisha. We watched in wonder as this young man with Down’s syndrome transformed into a coy Japanese fan-fluttering butterfly. It was as if something deep, of great sensual nuance and grace was released from within.
After the unmitigated success of RüCKBLICK we were all raring to go on the next production. We had to get money, so we called ourselves AMICI, and I remember a manager from Nat West Bank who said if we promised him 2 tickets, he would lend us some money!
Well, as usual, we believed we could do it and so we started on SILENCE.
Now, over the years we have been described as ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ but I prefer the ‘differently-abled’ title. The so-called ‘Magic of Amici’ started with a group of friends becoming like a family. Our choreographer Wolfgang believed in the dancer/performer in us all. Today we are stronger than ever - an international company with renown.
In the early days, especially with the success we had had, I think people wanted to get on the bandwagon. There were some from the different disability groups who thought able-bodied dancers had no right to be performing with, for example, deaf people. A couple of the students’ carers were nasty to Wolfgang and tried but failed to put him off. They thought they could do better, maybe. However, we listened, and 10 years later our whole show was choreographed by members of the company. Carol Britten, who was a perfect Josephine Baker in STARS ARE OUT TONIGHT (The Lyric, 2005) choreographed a lovely dance to one of the Goldberg Variations.
But like many a storm we weathered, SILENCE told the story of human endurance, trial, and the questioning of one’s own belief and morality.
I remember in Poland I was shocked that there was ONLY ONE coach that could take wheelchairs. In Warsaw the whole company was given free food and drink at the newly opened Pizza Express as they couldn’t wait to see us in the shows. One customer said, “Over here we keep the disabled hidden!” I remember also an admittedly wealthy family came from Bombay and rejoiced that their son performed with us and went back to tell enough people, so that now, like everywhere else, there are groups like Amici in India.
The audiences for Amici are still loyal and new ones come every show -
we are so proud of what the Magic of Amici has produced.
Perin Parri Hughes
When we started rehearsing for SILENCE it quickly became obvious that we weren’t going to get the support from Shape that we had received for the RüCKBLICK production. Ann Ballard, David Rowlands and I decided that the responsibilities for fundraising and marketing would be too much for Wolfgang to deal with on top of the choreography, direction and coordination of supporting professionals. We decided to form a ‘committee’ and do it for him.
All three of us were teachers at that time so we had no idea how to tackle it, but the staff at SHAPE were supportive and gave us ideas as well as a list of potential funders. Crucially they allowed us to use their name, (and Charity Commission number) as an umbrella organisation. Without it most donors would have been unable to support us as we didn’t have charitable status in our own right then.
We had many meetings over the year-long rehearsal period and wrote several proposals and numerous ‘begging’ letters. In the later stages of rehearsals Ann wasn’t able to attend committee meetings as regularly, but by then wasn’t working full-time. This meant she had time during the working day to pursue our applications for funding, and her persuasive, timely telephone calls secured cash from indecisive businesses and charitable trusts- the first being 1000 pounds from our own bank! What a moment that was! In all we raised 5000 pounds - enough to cover costs and expenses but not all fees.
The experience formed the future course of Amici management, the purpose of which was to take the administrative pressure away from Wolfgang to allow him to concentrate on his strength: the creative process.
And the production?
Fabulous choreography, direction, set design, costumes and incredible, breath-taking performances.
One of the hardest we have ever done in terms of its emotional intensity, both in the content of the production and in the internal conflicts within and between company members.
A time of emotional turmoil for all which resonated for some time after...BUT worth every single hour of hard work by the ‘committee’.
I read ‘Silence’ and was thoroughly gripped by it. The negative force during the rehearsals was both destructive and undermining, the dress-rehearsal was dreadful, but somehow, we all pulled together on the first night to produce something immensely powerful and special. Pius’s performance was always so heart-rending.
The behind-the-scenes pressure and backbiting chaos seemed to contribute to my personal struggle in my role as a suppressed peasant. The use of props was new to us and I still have the fan, which brings back memories. The final dance was such a challenge, both physically and emotionally and we were all just relieved and exhausted when it went well. Having live musicians was tremendous, especially the insistent drumming. Travelling home afterwards I would find myself listening to the rhythms in day-to-day sounds.
I first met Wolf in 1976 when I was a physiotherapy student at St. Marys Hospital in London. He had been asked to conduct movement workshops for us by the Principal of the Physiotherapy School, as part of our further education. Subsequently, Wolf asked some of us to join him in his Wednesday night classes that were held in the church hall in Baron’s Court, West London. It was here that I met the members of his company, AMICI.
I had had a classical ballet training and now, through Wolf, I became involved in classes that included classical, creative and contemporary dance styles, as well as drama, and, for the first time, classes that included those with physical disabilities as well as able bodied people. This experience was a complete eye-opener to me and an experience that I learnt so much from and will never, ever forget. Wolf opened my eyes to the beauty and expressiveness that people can portray. He seemed to have boundless energy and enthusiasm, always seeing the positive side in people and what they could contribute to class and rehearsals. He allowed us all to feel free and able to move our bodies without judgement.
As classes and, ultimately, rehearsals for SILENCE progressed, I learnt to see how people of all types of physical abilities and disabilities could express their ideas, feelings and experiences in the most beautiful ways. Wolf taught me to appreciate that there are so many ways that emotions can be expressed through movement, and that these movements do not have to be the ‘perfect lines’ that I was taught in my classical ballet training.
These lessons and rehearsal times spent with Wolf and the wonderful Amici Company have helped me tremendously in my working life as a physiotherapist working with dancers.”
Fragments of Memories after so many years:
I first met Wolfgang as a first-year physiotherapy student at St Mary’s hospital in 1976 and will be forever grateful that our principal, Miss Robbins, thought that we should broaden our experience of learning about movement. Wolfgang took us for maybe 6 sessions and introduced us to a more creative approach to moving. It wasn’t for everyone, but having had no experience of dance at all, I was enthralled. He carried on taking a small group of us one evening a week.
After this I started going to the church hall in Barons Court and joined the Amici family. I loved the integrated group and was fascinated by the total confidence and sense of trust Wolfgang created in that group. I learned so much about authentic movement and responding to music and to others through movement, but, more importantly, from Wolfgang’s enthusiasm, and his ability to bring out every individual’s ability to grow and develop confidence and creativity through dance.
I just hope that in some small way I have been able to allow his non-judgmental appreciation of individuals to influence my work as a physiotherapist and as a person.
I joined Amici after RüCKBLICK, and Wolfgang was starting to think about SILENCE, which we performed in 1985. This was my first experience of the performing arts, and what a privilege this was in a setting where those with a ‘disability’ were given the principal roles. I was in awe of both their talent and Wolfgang’s ability to pull this extraordinarily ambitious project together.
I have a powerful memory of Ian, who had the role of The Virgin/Geisha. During a break in one of the final rehearsals we all sat around resting and chatting. But up on the stage was Ian, moving through not his role, but the other principal roles. He had observed and absorbed those movements and was moving through them. It was so beautiful and utterly spellbinding.
I clearly remember Reynard as Rodrigues - his extraordinarily powerful stage presence. I remember Pius, and on my final emotional session with Amici before moving to Australia, crying and being comforted by a weeping Pius.
Just thinking back, those memories still bring out goose-bumps and make me quite teary.
A tale told in silence:
My own particular favourite AMICI production was the realisation on stage of the novel ‘Silence’ by Shusako Endo, about the life of a Portuguese missionary priest whose experiences caused him to lose his faith. One of our dancers, a deeply committed Catholic, illustrated this loss by the use of blasphemous imagery: a picture of Christ upon which he was induced to spit and to stamp. This alien deed has remained in my memory, as it did in the memory of Pius himself.
AMICI had sought permission from the author to use his novel and to create and perform their version of SILENCE long before Martin Scorsese made his film of the book in 2016. We heard that like Wolfgang, he too had felt compelled to adapt this work and that it had taken him nearly 30 years to bring his project to fruition.
For Amici this all happened many years ago. The company dances on into the future.
When I started working with Amici on SILENCE, I had half formed ideas of getting the whole group to provide music throughout much of it, based on free improvisation. Wolf quickly saw that this would not work and used his subtle art of persuasion to enslave two superb musicians by summoning them one day to the chilly church hall where we rehearsed and asking them to improvise, on small woodwind and percussion, music for an idyllic woodland scene in 17th century Japan, followed by an ecstatic dance by two young missionaries intoxicated by the beauty and joy of their surroundings. No pressure?
After that there was no escape for those musicians, and I take the blame for enslaving a third a colleague from work. Another of my preconceptions that went out of the window was that the structured music should all be Western based 17th century music, leaving the Japanese side of it to the imagination. To Silence I suppose. But in music silence usually needs to be represented by sound, even incompetent random sound, which is why I found myself accompanying a Geisha Dance, struggling to imitate the sound of a Koto on my cello, and pretending to sing Japanese words without a clue what they meant or whether they sounded right.
None of this is to say the whole of Amici did not at times get to improvise music, or that Western Music was not as prominent as Eastern in the Show, with five excellent singers consisting of our three musicians plus two from the cast. We managed to involve the rest of the cast in a motet by Palestrina, and though I knew the piece well it was never so moving as then. This was not in spite of but because the other music was so different. All the music of wildly contrasting styles and level of expertise was just as uniquely moving, because it happened almost by chance, seeming to come out of nothing. And disappear again into nothing, into silence.
Nothing and indeed silence very nearly happened when we moved into the performing space to find that the music for the terrifying climax of the show, an impression of Kodo drumming which had sounded alright in the rehearsal space, in the much deader acoustic here resembled more a couple of flies in the Grand Canyon. Only by stretching some architect paper over a ruined base drum we ‘saved our own skins’. My reward was to hear the brief return to the idyllic sounds of the forest which brought SILENCE to an end as excruciatingly tender as the previous drumming had been terrifying. This is one of the many musical highlights of Amici and one of the great musical experiences of my life.
I read Endo's book ‘Silence’ as Wolfgang was creating his own interpretation of this novel. It was an intense experience. The rehearsals were equally intense. The novel focuses on themes of religious persecution, utter isolation and profound moral conflict. Japanese peasants are told to trample on a religious image so that the authorities can determine who were the Christians among them. Those that cannot not do so are tortured in the sea until they die.
However, one of the Christian peasants, Ino Kichijiro, played by Pius, does trample on the image. In doing this does he renounce his faith? If he refuses will others suffer? What is his moral/religious duty?
I recall gentle Reynard in his monk's attire playing the leading character Rodrigues. Reynard had few words, but his hands and eyes conveyed so much more than words. Pius, as ever, assumed his dramatic role with vigour and conviction and Ian's fluid movement enabled an elegant transition into a red dress. This was a brave move by Wolfgang at a time when gender diversity was less discussed.
I remember Georg Beven's amazing painted image on a cloth that three of us wore. A three headed virgin/gorgon. Underneath the cloth we were precariously holding each other, balancing on steps and trying to move as one! I remember too, the tensions in the Company. The themes of the book came alive between us: conflict, doubt and intensity pervaded rehearsals. It was Amici at its most unsettled. Many of us struggled within ourselves and with each other. But the connections between Amici members were stronger than the disruptive forces. SILENCE was one of Wolfgang's strongest creations.