Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lindsay Kemp's Virgin Queen comes to Japan

Special to The Japan Times

It was a scorching day in July and the air in Tokyo's concrete jungle was shimmering in the heat. But on a visit here prior to next month's opening of his voluptuous production "Elizabeth I: the Last Dance" at Theatre Cocoon, avant-garde performance-art icon Lindsay Kemp — a self-described "stranger in a strange land" back home in England — appeared quite at ease, as perhaps befits a longtime resident of the hotter climes of Italy and Spain.

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Madcap queen: Lindsay Kemp's Queen Elizabeth I romps with Mary, Queen of Scots COURTESY OF TATE CORPORATION

With his sparkling, impish eyes, his lovely smile and expressive hand movements, this 70-year-old, sporting a light cotton jinbei summer kimono, immediately brought to vibrant life a cozy meeting room in a Shibuya gallery currently showing his art work, as he made his entrance.

Fresh from a stroll around the eclectic back streets of Shibuya, this multitalented man, who has told some interviewers that his birthplace is Birkenhead in northwest England but others that it is South Shields in the northeast, was soon talking of how he began taking ballet lessons at age 4, "Billy Elliot"-style, with the secret support of his mother and against the wishes of his father, a merchant sailor who was lost at sea in 1940.

It was after Kemp left a boarding school in England, though — where he has described dancing as Oscar Wilde's "Salome" in his dormitory clad in no more than a few sheets of toilet paper — that Kemp first made his mark, when he moved to London in the 1950s to join the legendary Ballet Rambert as a dancer. He later founded his own Lindsay Kemp Company there in 1962 — just as the socio-cultural phenomenon of the Swinging '60s was about to take off. Before long his company's androgynous performances were the talk of the town, as startled critics mulled them sagely and audiences flocked to the shows, which he danced in, choreographed and directed.

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Kemp goofs around for The Japan Times at a Shibuya gallery. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Then, in 1968, Kemp's fame spread nationwide following his company's triumphant appearance that year at the famed Edinburgh Festival. His reach extended further still in the early '70s, when he got together again with David Bowie, who'd first sung with his troupe in 1967, to direct the glam-rocker's "Ziggy Stardust" shows.

After close-on 50 years in showbiz, it wasn't his colorful history that Kemp was in Tokyo to talk about, but his original, spectacular tale of England's so-called Virgin Queen, the decidedly amorous Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), told in dance, mime, music and outrageously stunning costumes. Kemp himself takes the title role, as well as directing and undertaking both the stage and lighting design.

"Since I was a child, I have had a passion for Elizabeth I," Kemp declares with wistful ardor lighting his face. "In fact, really, it's a passion for her and also that glorious Elizabethan era of beauty, poetry, music and Shakespeare. I have been attracted all my life by everything Elizabeth represented — but most especially by her extreme personal theatricality and her passion. This stage is a story about her life, and it's told in fragments beginning at the end of her life and then through a series of flashbacks to her most memorable episodes — but mostly ones to do with her great loves, the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Essex."

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In fact, Kemp confided that his love affair with the Virgin Queen — one of the most famous women in all of history — started courtesy of his greatest supporter of all, and his "heroine" (along with Isadora Duncan): his mother.

"When I was a child, my mother took me to a 1939 movie that Bette Davis was in, titled 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.' Bette was the Virgin Queen, and I was not just influenced by the beauty of her clothes and that culture, but by the magnificence of the swashbuckling drama, with its sea battles and murders, for example. It was all so action-packed.

"However, it wasn't until recently that I realized Elizabeth's clothes have been waiting for me to step into. So, this is the right time: At my age now, I've reached exactly the right time to play this ailing Elizabeth."

"Elizabeth I: the Last Dance" premiered to critical and popular acclaim three years ago in Spain after Kemp created it together with regular, close collaborators Sandy Powell, his costume designer (and former student) who won Oscars for 1999's "Shakespeare in Love" and 2005's "The Aviator"; and Chilean composer Carlos Miranda, his long-term business partner.

"This production," Kemp declares, beaming with enough radiance to light half of Tokyo, "will be full of my color and my trademark of 'total theater' — probably more total than previously." Total theater refers to the practice of mixing different theatrical elements, such as dance, mime and, in this case, opera.

"Moreover, as it was conceived as a form of dance and opera in the first place, singing will be much more prominent than (in my previous productions). There's lots of dancing, singing and drama, and spectacular effects with imaginative projected images as well. I hope you enjoy it," he adds rather humbly.

As if to excuse himself further, he continues: "It doesn't have any of those spectacular effects like in Andrew Lloyd Webber-type commercial musicals. I don't like that very much, nor do I care for the theater of technology, and I don't much care for (the fact) that that kind of theater has replaced the theater of human hearts — the theater of life and passion and real magic. What I bring to the theater I would hope is a real love, a real passion. It is spectacularly emotional and it is also spectacularly beautiful."

Although Elizabeth I is a major figure in European history, she is not so familiar to Japanese audiences. So was Kemp worried that his Virgin Queen (aka Good Queen Bess) may be spurned on these shores?

"Well, you see, I have this possibility, because my talent is to be able to connect with people everywhere. I feel very much part of everyone, but particularly with the Japanese, who have always been my greatest audience and seem to understand me the most. Also, my language of music and dance is very much universal. Furthermore, the story of Elizabeth is really a romantic, universal story. So, I trust the Japanese audience."

Kemp's first official stage appearance in Japan was in his 1986 masterpiece "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — a dance production that remains a legend to this day; a staging so powerful that long after the encores most audience members remained in their seats, stunned by its huge artistic impact. Many critics wrote that they had never before seen a production that boasted such original artistic flair.

Following that, he brought his company to Japan in each of the next 10 years. Interestingly, though, he reveals that his first "unofficial" performance here was at a shrine "somewhere in Tokyo" when he stopped over to visit a friend in 1976 on his way back home from an Australian tour. On that occasion, as they walked past the shrine, they were beckoned inside by a priest who served them sake. But when the priest found out that Kemp was a dancer, he asked for an impromptu performance, and Kemp obliged by returning that evening to perform an improvisation accompanied by Japanese musicians.

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Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester

Since that welcoming creative encounter, it seems Kemp — whose sailor father first introduced him to Japan through fans and kimono he brought home from his voyages — has, as he put it, "always felt at home here, as if it is a place for me."

But after having been away for 13 years, how does he like what he finds here now?

"Tokyo nowadays — at least in Shibuya — seems to have a more liberated atmosphere than last time I was here," he says. "Everyone seems to be so well dressed and there's a fun, festive feeling, and people seem to have more individuality in their appearance and don't look as conservative as they used to."

With another of his smiles, he adds: "Perhaps I had a small influence on them; so one day, someone in all-white makeup will come up to me and say, 'It's your fault, Lindsay!' "

If that were ever to occur, it would certainly delight this artist, who explains his motivation for dance creation by saying, "It's probably always been the same since I started — I would like to give pleasure. I want to inspire and to encourage people to dream their own dreams. Really, this way they can maybe change their own lives for the better. Nothing too grandiose; I really just like to bring a smile to people either here or in the street or in the theater. I also like people when they leave the theater to be very liberated. That, I think, is my intention — to liberate, to liberate."

As for his own future liberation movements, this dance revolutionary confesses: "I have no plan for a future production at the moment — like Picasso said, 'I don't seek; I find.' I'm waiting for another dress for me to step into, like I experienced with Elizabeth I this time. But I am enjoying today so much that I hardly think about tomorrow. I'm very much a rock 'n' roller in that respect.

"But really, to be honest, what takes me to the stage is only that I need to be loved — and I need to give love through my performance."

"Elizabeth I: the Last Dance" runs Oct. 4-13 at Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo. For more details, call the theater on (03) 3477-999 or visit Lindsay Kemp's drawing exhibition "Elizabeth I" runs Oct. 4-13 at Poster Haris Gallery, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo. For more details, call the gallery on (080) 2033-0499 or visit

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