Lindsey Kemp Company

January 30, 2002

Lindsay Kemp Company

Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London, England

January 30, 2002

Reviewed by Margaret Willis

Lindsay Kemp certainly stirs up controversy. One leading British newspaper hailed him as “one of the greatest stage creatures this country has ever produced”; others have called his work banal and self-indulgent. Whatever the view, the fact is that Kemp flagrantly and flamboyantly crosses the lines of his art in a very individual way. He mixes Kabuki, mime, circus, commedia dell’arte, and bawdy British humor and pantomime into one large cocktail of colorful, often erotic, extravaganza?or “phantasmagoria” as he calls it. Though he no longer could be called a dancer, he swirls and twirls with grace, waving fleshy arms in part silent-screen, part histrionic, part camp exaggeration. And he possesses a magnetic personality onstage that draws the onlooker into his make-believe world. His skin is painted white, his eyes panda-black, and his lips ruby-red; his puckish features are topped by his shiny bald head. And he likes to wear dresses. His drag performances are reminiscent of a beloved granny getting up to do an impromptu party piece with an endearing abandon, beaming with a self-satisfaction that cuts through any embarrassment.

From earliest childhood Kemp wanted to be Cinderella. Born in the north of England in 1938 (and now living in a converted convent in a medieval town near Rome), he taught himself ballet steps from a book when he was at a nautical boarding school. He came to London to train with Marie Rambert and in 1964 created his own company, performing short pieces with a couple of other dancers. It was at the height of the swinging ’60s that he met with such avant-garde artistic luminaries as Steve Berkoff, Ken Russell, Francis Bacon, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie (for whom he staged the Ziggy Stardust concerts). The unorthodox atmosphere that surrounded them fueled Kemp’s own theatrical vision and his desire to be different. And that dream came true. His production Flowers ran in the West End and on Broadway in 1968, with an ambitious touring plan, Kemp became recognized around the world. One of his works, Cruel Garden, a collaboration with Christopher Bruce, was created for Rambert Dance Company in 1977, while his earlier The Parades Gone By is being revived for Rambert’s spring season at Sadler’s Wells.

For his return to the West End, Kemp brought “Dreamdances,” a retrospective of his works in ten sequences. These included some of the most memorable moments of earlier works, and strove to show different aspects of love and madness through his inimitable fantasy world. Kemp performed half of the repertoire and was joined by the Spanish-born danceer Nuria Moreno, who has worked with Kemp since 1982, and by Marco Berriel, a former Béjart principal, who also choreographed five of the pieces. As Violetta, the Lady of the Camellias, Kemp glided on slowly in Southern-belle crinoline (ludicrous with the bald head!) to cough, then remember happier days with Alfredo (Berriel). Together they mimed their actions to Verdi’s famous love duets, and twirled and waltzed together before Violetta’s doomed end, complete with coughing up blood. In Salomé’s Last Dance, Kemp, enfolded in voluminous scarlet, caressed and kissed the head of John the Baptist before being taken back to the scene of “her” crime and forced to relive the murder. Berriel stood Adonis-like throughout, hands clasped behind him and chains across his chest while Salome adored, desired, taunted, then killed him, discarding only two of the presumably seven veils in the process! In part two, Kemp was incarcerated in lunatic asylums for his interpretations of Salieri, in Requiem for Antonio Salieri and of Nijinsky, in Fragments from the Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. before becoming The Angel in the last piece, where he swirled stage-wide silken wings in his tribute to the art of Loie Fuller. Special mention must be made of the staging (Kemp and David Haughton) and lighting (John Spradbery) in all the works, but especially in Requiem and Fragments. In the former, the now-mad composer Salieri let rip with his pillowcase, and feathers flew in great clouds of white, up and over himself (and the front row of the theater). As Nijinsky, he entered in solemn slowness while a blizzard swirled around him, conjuring up the bleakness and muddle of his mind. This fragment concluded with an Apollonian climb up a stepladder in glowing light to another world.

Berriel brought the only real dancing to the evening in his Aria, described in the program as a prelude to ascension. He has a fine-toned body and a sleek, sensual attack to his dancing?a complete contrast to Kemp, whose hypnotic personality and obvious enjoyment of performing to an audience are his ticket to dance. Moreno looked best in the Spanish episodes, Rosita and Suspiros de España, where she was coquettish and sleek. She made a macabre bird in The Dying Swan takeoff; with one crippled, pointe-shoed foot (the other was bare), she hobbled through the Saint-Saëns score, flapping her wings in mock anguish.

So, is Kemp the missing link between high art and light entertainment? His performance was definitely entertaining?though several people around me left at half-time?and yes, it was self-indulgent. But the slow-paced action was a refreshing change, as were the short episodes that never exceeded their sell-by date. Today, Lindsay Kemp is an elderly, family-friendly Drosselmeyer who weaves his own multifaceted brand of magic over those that come to watch him.