Review: The Magic of Amici at Riverside Studios

Performance: 10 Feb 2010
Reviewed by Sam Gauntlett - Monday 15 February 2010

Magic of Amici

That Sir Ben Kingsley gave his time for free to narrate any film would be endorsement indeed, but the Oscar winning actor is also patron of the inspiring dance theatre company whose story he tells in The Magic of Amici.

Amici celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and a film premiere, complete with red carpet seems an appropriate way to do it. Filmmaker Alan Bowyer called it his “proudest achievement to date” in his introductory speech and a packed auditorium applauded the film all the way to the end of the credits. The evening sparkled with excitement and, by the time I was leaving the theatre, I had resolved to make sure I see Amici perform their next work in June.

Although fascinating as a stand-alone documentary, The Magic of Amici has been produced as an educational tool for people to learn about and replicate the unique methods used by this company which integrates able-bodied and disabled performers. The film charts the history, outlines the methods and ethos of Amici and centres on its charismatic founder, Wolfgang Stange.

Originally from Berlin, Stange comes across in the film as a thoughtful and warm, yet fiercely determined man, who passionately believes that every person has the right and potential to perform. Whilst training at London Contemporary Dance School in 1968, Stange worked with Hilde Holger, legendary expressionist dancer, choreographer and, remarkably, still an active teacher at the age of 95, when she died in 2001. Stange says that Holger had a “fundamental belief in the creative potential of everyone” and told him, when he doubted his own suitability for dance that it was a matter of intention – “if you really want to dance you can dance”, she said.

Stange’s adoration for his late mentor is palpable: there is some touching footage of him looking up to a larger than life portrait of her and bowing reverently. But Stange himself is an inspiring character, who it seems works very much on instinct and for the love of his art.

Through a combination of archive footage (which we were told by Bowyer originated from a tower of VHS cassette tapes filling a wardrobe in Stange’s home), still photography and interviews, this film gives a real insight into how the company operates and centres on exploring the question, “what is the magic of Amici?”

It seems that the magic is a combination of factors. Footage of workshops shows men and women with Downs syndrome, wheelchair users and blind performers integrating with able-bodied, classically trained dancers and professional actors. Stange uses various innovative methods to create a safe environment where participants can feel confident in expressing themselves. There is always an opening circle when group members introduce themselves to one another and sessions have a fixed structure which brings an element of predictability. Stange works very much on the premise that everyone is an individual and as such has their own approach to dance – some participants, due to a disability, might only be able to move a finger, or blink their eyes, but each contribution is as valid as the next.

Improvisation is a key element in the process of creating a new work and is central to the Amici way. Stange says, “Improvisation is really learning to react. It is a progression of learning how to link up, how to work with someone else and because you allow them to be themselves and you take what they have given and put it into the performance, it is theirs.”

He also uses props to help members focus, inspire movement or to distract self-conscious performers and tells a touching story about one young man who always held his head low until Stange gave him a mask to wear, which instantaneously caused him to lift his face.

The Magic of Amici is a fascinating film and an invaluable tool for anyone working in disability arts. It seems a tragedy that such an extraordinary company should be struggling for funding as they prepare to perform a new piece of work this summer, but I have no doubt that somehow they will continue. Footage of performances gives us glimpses of challenging, complex and colourful productions and I suspect the strong bond between members in the group (Amici means “friend” in latin) and their passion for performance is the kind of magic that never dies.

To purchase the practical guide and DVD, visit www.turtlekeyarts.org.uk.

Guide & DVD, £32. Buy here
DVD only £17 Buy here

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