While Liverpool is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Amici Dance Theatre Company has revived its 30th anniversary show, Tightrope – almost a ringer for the Beatles’ circus tribute on the album, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite. William Kite was a Victorian tightrope walker (amongst other skills); Amici’s equivalent is David Grindley, a wheelchair user who can’t walk but who can fly from a wire.
Wolfgang Stange founded Amici in 1980 as an integrated company of disabled and able-bodied performers. (He soon stopped using ‘integrated’ in its title, since his theatrical productions had no need of any qualification.) Tightrope presents its 40-plus members as intrepid but not always successful circus entertainers. ‘We abandon no-one’ announces the Ringmistress, Rosie Leak – even though the knife-thrower is partially sighted and the mind-reader can’t guess a thing.
What matters is that ‘A splendid time is guaranteed for all’, in the words of Mr Kite’s benefit song. Each act is presented with panache, accompanied by stirring music. Professional musicians and singers sit high above the gallimaufry below until they choose to join in the fun. Nao Masuda, composer, plays an astonishing array of instruments, including a harmonica, accordion, thumb piano and percussion. Jenny Adejayan is a renowned cellist, while opera singer Wendy Grose, striving to shatter glass with her top notes, is a seasoned artiste.
In between the comically incompetent turns – strongmen who can’t lift, a snake charmer who cheats – come poignant dance numbers. A bevy of translucent umbrellas disguise Grindley’s ascent until he dangles, free from gravity, before returning to his chair. Two wheelchair users circle round each other in a duet of compassionate fellow feeling. A powerful man, Alex Harvey (from Ockham’s Razor performance group) joins in to raise dancer Suzie Birchwood from her chair high above his head for a triumphant Pyramide d’amour.
Near the finale, he and she link together as daring aerialists – skills learnt from the National Centre for Circus Arts. Everyone’s heart is in their mouth as Birchwood, plunging downward, is caught by Harvey’s feet at the last minute. Amici rightly prides itself on taking risks. The entire cast gather round for the last sequence, holding red balloons they release in an uplifting ballet. Their smiles of pride and pleasure are reflected in the enthusiastic audience response. Stange’s productions are a form of magic, uniting performers and spectators through a spell that makes light of the hard work behind each performance.