Melding abstract art forms

I graduated from university in 1987 and was living in a new town with a new job. The only way to keep abreast of the news of my favourite musicians was to pop into the newsagent at lunch-time and quickly scan the first few pages of the music weeklies – NME, Sounds, Melody Maker. It was impossible to dwell too long for fear of incurring the wrath of the shop-keeper. My budget did not allow for weekly purchases, but vital updates had to be sought out…

It was with real surprise that I spotted the following in the NME of 29 August 1987. ‘David Sylvian has written the score for the latest dance project by leading young dancer Gaby Agis. The ex-Japan singer’s music gets its premiere at the Almeida Theatre in London’s Islington from September 8 to 13. For ticket details, ring the box office.’ I lived relatively close to London but a trip at short notice would still take some organising as I had no car at the time; bus, rail and underground would all be needed. Practicalities having been attended to, during my lunch break the next day I slipped out to a red public telephone box – personal phone calls being forbidden at the office – and secured tickets for the second day’s performance.

It was Agis who approached and then commissioned Sylvian to provide the music for this collaboration with both herself and the sculptor Kate Blacker. Sylvian explained, ‘I’d recently become more interested in dance, been to see a few different shows at Sadler’s Wells. She contacted me. I liked the idea of working with a choreographer more than say doing a soundtrack for a film. Because music and dance are both very abstract forms. Sensual, fluid. It didn’t have to be rhythmic, but… humane, hypnotic. I like the idea of drawing people into a frame of mind then letting them go within that realm, the realm of their own imagination. It’s always frustrated me that you couldn’t achieve that with a live musical performance.’ (1987)

Sylvian had admitted finding companionship through the works of earlier creatives, in particular holding a deep fascination for Jean Cocteau who he said ‘was well-known for doing a lot of things equally as well as each other’ (1984). I wonder whether it was in part the inspiration of the French writer and visual artist that encouraged Sylvian to accept the invitation to explore the fusion of art, dance and music? Cocteau was unconstrained by artistic medium and famously created the ballet Parade, persuading Erik Satie to compose his debut music for dance and Pablo Picasso to contribute his first theatre set-designs and costumes. Too lofty a comparison perhaps, but the allure of the project was likewise an opportunity to explore new ground.

Agis saw potential in the parallels between their development as artists, ‘I had become frustrated with the limitations of very structured dance [and] had got increasingly into improvised situations. It seemed to me, through listening to David’s music, that he was in a similar situation – a feeling of wanting to move beyond the structures that pop music was forcing on him.’

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My ticket to the second performance of Kin

I remember the Almeida being an intimate venue, seating an audience of just over three hundred, and the environment being simple, even austere. Gaby Agis and Kate Blacker had worked together in the recent past and their earlier ground-breaking collaborations give pointers as to how they approached the creation of Kin.

Kate, a sculptor and graduate of the Royal College of Art who had exhibited in the UK and across Europe, was interested in the potential of the relationship between sculpture and a performance space. I asked her where this all began. ‘At the beginning of the 1980s I met Angela Beveridge Serota [ballet dancer and at the time wife of art gallery director Nicholas Serota] and we discussed collaboration between dance and visual arts. She put me and Gaby in touch. Gaby and I both agreed on the importance of taking dance out of the theatre space and were both committed to experimenting with different spatial experiences where the gap between dancers, installation and audience could be closed and their interaction redefined. Riverside Studios gave us our first opportunity with Borders, then Trail at the Whitechapel Gallery.’

Dancers inhabit the installation, Trail, Whitechapel Gallery, 1986

Trail showcased the unified experience that Kate and Gaby had imagined. ‘Horizontal sheets of corrugated metal were fixed together and hung at either end of the space, descending from the ceiling and out onto the floor. These provided the two dancers with their own “territories”; a combined backdrop and stage area. During the performance the dancers interacted with the installation in a number of ways. These passive and monumental mini-stages became loud thundering percussion instruments, shifting and swaying as the dancers displaced the flexible material with their movements. The scale of the dancers seemed to change when they were on the metal, “backlit” by the reflective surface, seemingly becoming larger when detached from their gallery surroundings. Although the dancers’ presence was enhanced when on their individual territories at the two extremes of the space, their separation fractured the performance. The audience, seated or standing along the two sides of the gallery, could only watch one or the other of the dancers at a time. When reunited on the gallery floor in the centre of the space their scale was reduced again to that of the audience, where their movements would bring them in such close contact they would almost combine with the public. Throughout the performance the audience’s perception of the dancers changed. They appeared human and vulnerable when dancing together in the open space of the gallery and then became almost super human when blending with the metal into a cohesive image, a combination of place, movement and sound.’

For Kin, despite the more traditional theatre setting, the approach was the same. ‘I think of my sets more as installations – as making a place. A place where an event takes place,’ Kate explains. Corrugated iron was again used to contextualise the piece firmly in the present, a triangular structure of the material marking out the performance area, within touching distance of the audience. ‘The three sided corrugated shape followed the layout of the seating of the theatre and came up to the front row, taking the set space right up to the audience. This placed the main feature of the set in front of, rather than behind, the performers inverting the conventional backdrop. This corrugated border around the floor also inverted the conventional vertical picture frame of the proscenium arch laying it horizontally on the floor at the feet of the audience. This made the border between dancers and audience a literal, physical border rather than a theatrical one.’

The austere surroundings I remembered were due in part to the theatre being cleared right back to its brick-work, unflattering and rough, yet the architecture forming an attractive curve as the backdrop for performance. ‘I encrusted two lines of corrugated metal into the brick wall at the back where two lines of brick were missing. They were like seams in a rock face, and then at the top of the semi-circular wall I installed a semi-circular sun/moon form in corrugated metal. So although the main concentration seems to be on the ground level, the whole height of the theatre space was included in the set. I had decided to take the installation as far back as possible, to the theatre’s bare walls and further by opening out though the back door into the courtyard, beyond the theatre, which I also clad with corrugated metal. The dancers came on from this space, as if they had come in from the outside.’

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Kin, showing Kate Blacker’s installation and the corrugated metal structure out into the courtyard. Gaby Agis is on the left.

The creative process that Kate and Gaby adopted meant the catalyst for the design of the performance area was primarily the nature of the venue itself. ‘I developed installations mainly in relation to the space where the performances would be. Our collaborations were more like meetings. Neither of us developed work in response to the other, we worked in the confidence of what the other would develop.

‘I’d recently discovered this collaborative method of Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham; they specifically did not know what the other was going to produce at the moment of performance in order to provoke spontaneity and improvisation. Their collaborations were an inspiring reference, especially as we rarely had rehearsal time in the space as our performances were often squeezed into short periods in between exhibitions. It was challenging and exciting – and it worked; we surprised each other.’

There were five dancers in the company including Gaby Agis herself. The style of dance was far from the traditional ballet that I had experienced before attending this production. Choreography and technique was more rooted in the expression of inner feelings and the responses of the dancers to one another than in the creation of classic poses or movements with their bodies. At one point a dancer is held horizontal to the ground by other performers and promenades around the semi-circular brickwork. In another moment, coats are flung into the air and recovered by other dancers in a seeming act of sharing and equality. Speaking with City Limits magazine to promote Kin, Gaby confirmed, ‘I’m not interested in making beautiful pictures. There may be beauty in what I create but dance should reflect the now.’ (1987)

Agis had grown up with the influence of radical and innovative choreographer Rosemary Butcher who taught her at school and opened up the world of improvisation in dance. In her late teens she experienced the somatic dance practices evident in Kin during a transformational spell in New York, later developing her approach through the vibrant scene centred around Riverside Studios in London where she was choreographer-in-residence in the mid-’80s.

Charlotte Zerbey was the dancer who appeared with Agis in Trail at Whitechapel, and was also part of the company for Kin. It was Riverside that drew them together, and the Dance Umbrella festival. ‘I met Gaby through a project called Reckless directed by Katie Duck and Tristan Honsinger,’ Charlotte told me. ‘It was a project with many dance artists and musicians…This project utilised improvisation as the main performance genre.’ Reckless explored how improvisation in movement and in music could come together; creativity sparked by the immediacy of the responses of one medium to another. Other dancers included Lloyd Newson, Julyen Hamilton and Laurie Booth, and performing alongside cellist Honsinger was none other than Derek Bailey.

Kin was not improvised as such, but some of the same principles applied. Charlotte: ‘The piece was, as I remember, set choreography. Gaby used a method of verbal instructions that left the process open to large interpretation and helped to bring out, I think, the particularity of the individual performers and a more free sense of composition, as might happen within an improvised performance.’ Was there a specific narrative to be conveyed? ‘Gaby’s work was quite up front in its presentation of the body in that she didn’t work, as I remember, on theme or through descriptive portrayal.’ And those memorable scenes of coats flung skywards? ‘I believe that was more about the movement, energy and visuals in a pure presentation of body movement than anything else.’

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Kin, the full ensemble.

I remember the dancers slumped against the outer walls of the Almeida, all present but with no apparent connection between them. Isolation was conveyed time and again; one individual would seem afflicted and distressed, then to receive comfort and guidance from another dancer. Movement was naturalistic rather than showy. ‘There are no tricks, no virtuosities in my choreography. It’s not spectacular… I mean, if you think about it, stillness is one of the biggest movements you can make!…It’s not Swan Lake. My dance has to reflect the world we live in. I try to get people to move and feel and think, to find some emotional release.’ (GA, 1988)

1987 in the UK was the year of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory, race riots in the provinces, a deepening dread of AIDS. Themes of misunderstanding, struggle and fear translated from the contemporary world into the production. Weren’t we all “kin”? The configuration of five dancers meant that if there were two couples, then there was also an outsider in the group. This was not a fairy-tale in a romantic utopia; it was gritty, contemporary reality, offset by the glint of Blacker’s iron framing and metallic flooring. ‘I think I’m trying to deal with images of women and men that don’t use banal stereotypes. I’m sick of all those endless love duets. It’s so heterosexual, it’s not a reflection of my sexuality. It’s so boring: men propel women through space. There might be conflict between them but there’s always reconciliation. How dare anyone tell me that couples go off into the sunset and that everything’s going to be alright. But it’s also not enough to replace these images by happy gay couples.’ (GA, 1987)

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Kin, Charlotte Zerbey closest to camera.

Only a fragment of the music has ever been released, an eight and a half minute excerpt on the b-side of the ‘Pop Song’ single and uncomfortably sequenced on the Alchemy disc in Weatherbox (and the standalone reissue of that cd in 2003). A spiralling, gently rasping synthesised line twists across the stereo mix, overlaid with bursts of luminous guitar. Abrasion and brightness juxtaposed. Sylvian explained that Agis ‘didn’t give me any specific instructions except to leave the duration of each piece relatively open and not to make the work obviously rhythmically based…Each time a piece was completed I’d leave a copy with Gaby, catch up on the new developments in the work, taking ideas with me back into the studio’ (1999). This iterative process of composition, dance rehearsal and repeat was engaging; interviewed by Chris Roberts during the gestation of the piece he confessed, ‘my mind is so immersed in this ballet’ (1987). Charlotte Zerbey remembers, ‘He stopped by a few rehearsals with a friend and viewed a couple of runs and brought a cd with musical propositions. He seemed very nice and easy to work with.’

The released music carries the full title of ‘The Stigma of Childhood (Kin)’. Kate Blacker cannot recall any link between this phrase and the dance production, so perhaps it relates more to Sylvian’s associations than the specifics of the commission. Of course, his feelings about his early years have often been referenced: ‘Childhood wasn’t a very happy period. The family’s quite close, but I never enjoyed my childhood. In fact I’ve managed to block most of it out because I can’t cope with it. I don’t know why, it was nothing to do with my parents. I was just oversensitive, I responded very badly to my environment.’ (DS, 1987)

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David Sylvian at the opening night of Kin, 8 September 1987, photograph from Bamboo magazine

It’s a great shame that Sylvian didn’t deem more of the music fit for circulation, saying later that the ‘strongest’ had been released. In a 1989 interview published in Italy he indicated that the excerpt released was the main theme, and hinted that a release had been in the works: ‘some of the other dynamic pieces I wrote for Agis I was just as fond of, but the quality of the recordings was lost on vinyl.’ The performance was around an hour and there was certainly an album’s worth of material there. I remember some evocative moments – the ringing of a church-like bell, samples of distant chanting, spoken word in a language so strange that the recording may well have been reversed, the sound of cicadas… Most of the music was beat-less – including one of the shorter ambient instrumentals from Gone to Earth, quite possibly ‘The Wooden Cross’ – which made the emergence of the slow swing of an ethnic rhythm all the more striking, anchoring a sequence where the dancers moved in time to the music, emphasising the beat with their feet. ‘In that part we moved in sync and the steps, I recall, were influenced by Indian Kathak based footwork,’ remembers Charlotte. ‘It was filled with strong and intense accumulation in time, in tonic.’

Had the full score seen the light of day it would have been a fitting part of the continuum of ‘Preparations for a Journey’, ‘Words with the Shaman’, ‘Steel Cathedrals’ and the Gone to Earth second disc, creating a contemporary instrumental companion piece to Secrets of the Beehive. Whilst the one track in the public domain is credited to Sylvian alone, at least one other musician from the Secrets... sessions was involved in creating music intended for the dance collaboration, although it appears this didn’t make it into the final edit. David Torn recalled: ‘David was also writing a piece for a dance company at the time; instead of just building a loop and putting it on tape he wanted performances. He chose one that he really liked a lot and that was supposed to be the compositional basis of this ballet piece – naturally that’s the piece that the sound engineer chose to lose on the Sony PCMF1. We got a field recording of bird sounds over the entire 20-minute loop.’ (1988)

Kate Blacker was happy with how all the elements came together to create contrasts that struck to the heart of the piece. ‘I remember how distinctly Kin developed the movements of a group of people, in very close proximity (to the audience) but detached, in a world apart, interacting with each other and in response to the sounds and environment around them. That sounds pretty obvious but in fact it shows the subtlety of Gaby’s choreography and her ability to really fuse music, installation and movement within a dance performance.’

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Sylvian would later produce soundscapes for art installations with both Russell Mills and Robert Fripp, but his work with Agis – including a contribution to a subsequent project Don’t Trash My Altar, Don’t Alter My Trash the following year – is the only time he has worked directly with a choreographer. ‘Things fell into place relatively easily, only one of the pieces I produced we agreed was unsuitable, otherwise there was an interesting exchange as the work developed over the weeks we had to put the piece together. I was particularly impressed by the degree of commitment the dancers exhibited.’ (DS, 1999)

‘The Stigma of Childhood (Kin)’

David Sylvian – all instruments

Music by David Sylvian

Produced by David Sylvian. Released as a b-side to the single ‘Pop Song’ and on Alchemy from Weatherbox by David Sylvian, Virgin, 1989

Excerpt from the score of Kin, a show devised by Gaby Agis and Kate Blacker. Choreography by Gaby Agis. Installation by Kate Blacker. Premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, 8 September 1987.

The Kin ensemble comprised Gaby Agis, Claire Bushe, Martin Coles, Matt Hauxwell and Charlotte Zerbey. Lighting was by Shirley O’Loughlin.

Download link: ‘The Stigma of Childhood (Kin)’ (iTunes)

The featured image is a detail from the Kin programme, performed at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 1TA, 8-13 September 1987.

I’m very grateful to Kate Blacker and Charlotte Zerbey for their contribution to this article and to Gaby Agis for reviewing it before publication. Photographs of Trail and Kin are courtesy of Kate. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

‘It is a medium that in a way transcends language; the effects of exploring dance – both physically watching it and being in that world – are quite often non-verbal and are kinaesthetic…I think it explores the unsaid, the unspoken, the intangible in terms of language.’ Gaby Agis, 2016

Also from 1987, Secrets of the Beehive:

When Poets Dreamed of Angels
Let the Happiness In

6 thoughts on “Kin”

  1. Thank you🙏! I’ve been always very curious about this Sylvian project: now I know what it was about. I’m happy! Heartfelt thanks from a back then 17 year-old girl, now satisfied in her curiosity😊

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I had just visited friends in London when it was time for me to go back home in France only to find out that this ballet was about to open at the Almeida Theatre. It really annoyed me, particularly when my friends went to see it on the opening night and met Sylvian afterwards… I managed to attend the “Don’t Trash My Altar, Don’t Alter my Trash” with the same friends a year later at the Riverside Studios, I was by then living on the outskirts of London. Only a very short piece by Sylvian was contained in the musical collage for that second ballet. I remember the audience had to move from room to room following the dancers. It was a freezing day. I also remember the singer from Dream Academy was in the audience.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Renaud. ‘Don’t Trash my Altar…’ completely passed me by at the time. I guess this shows how reliant we were on word of mouth or spotting those news items in the music press. I heard about it afterwards either in Bamboo or on reading the Weatherbox leaflet. I must research some more about that sometime. Sorry you missed ‘Kin’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Would you believe that in these decades I have always read ‘Don’t Trash My Altar, Don’t AltAr My Trash’? And I have always believed in the existence of the verb ‘to altar’, giving it the meaning to build an altar (… with my trash… oops…).
        This is the kind of things that happens when you are not a native English (sigh)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “…the ringing of a church-like bell, samples of distant chanting, spoken word in a language so strange that the recording may well have been reversed, the sound of cicadas…”

    Having read this, now I REALLY want to hear the full piece – sounds absolutely beautiful! Given the period it was written and the other music he released at that time, it’s likely far more melodic and engaging than his later installation soundtracks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vastly informative piece about the CIRCUMSTANCES of the piece’s composition but next to nothing about this magical composition itself, other than it being (that dread concept) “a soundscape” . A little disappointing, given how adept you are at this sort of thing. But I guess if the artist is unforthcoming with info, there’s not much you can do. Whatever happened to true fans kidnapping their idols and forcing them to submit to their demands…?


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