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Wednesday, June 8, 2005

A fling to remember

Will Kemp swans it on stage and screen

Special to The Japan Times

The all-male reworking of "Swan Lake" by English choreographer Matthew Bourne has become a dance and stage legend since its November 1995 premiere at Sadler's Wells Theater in London. This powerful piece of ballet zeitgeist toured widely before arriving in Japan in spring 2003. With nonstop curtain calls, its charismatic main dancer Adam Cooper, in the role of the Swan, shot to pop-idol status. He's since returned here to dance several times, while "Swan Lake" itself again packed the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo for a two-month run this spring.

News photo
Will Kemp as James in Matthew Bourne's "Highland Fling"

Cooper, though, is not the only dancer to have been propelled to worldwide stardom by Bourne's "Swan Lake." Back in 1996, 18-year-old Will Kemp was just another unknown hopeful when he was chosen to dance the role of the Swan. From there, it was a Cinderella story, as Kemp not only gained fame on the stage but also on the big screen, and even in Gap commercials.

In Japan, however, Kemp is still relatively unknown. That is all set to change with the arrival of Bourne's 1994 hit "Highland Fling," which will run for three weeks in Tokyo from June 23. In this reworking of the classical ballet "La Sylphide," Kemp dances the central role of James, a young Scottish aristocrat who is engaged to a woman who truly loves him. However, James falls under the spell of the nymph Sylphide, and midway through his wedding, he runs away to join Sylphide in the woods -- with heartbreak and tragedy following close behind.

On a recent trip to Tokyo ahead of rehearsals, Kemp talked with The Japan Times about his formative experiences, his aspirations and how he feels about being called the "James Dean of the dance world.''

How did you get into ballet?

I come from Hertfordshire [in the countryside north of London], where my parents still live, but I have lived in London for the past 12 years. I moved there when I went to the Royal Ballet School at the age of 15 or 16. I came across dance -- mainly it was my mother's idea -- as a child, because I was incredibly imaginative and they felt dance expression would be very good for me. So I went into my first tap class at a local school. I had classes in the evening outside of school and I walked in, and there was a room full of girls, and I thought, "Ah-ha!!" (laughs)

It was much like the film "Billy Elliot." I stayed there because I genuinely enjoyed it, I found a very, very wonderful way of expressing myself from a very early age, and a very strong sense of achievement with exams -- not just in tap, but also in contemporary dance, jazz dance, national drama and, finally, ballet.

News photo
Will Kemp in Tokyo in April to promote "Highland Fling"

Then you applied to the Royal Ballet School?

I was told that if I was going to take it seriously I needed a very strong classical training. I looked around the country and I found the best place that provides classical training, which is the Royal Ballet School, and I think I surprised a lot of people when I won a place.

[The selection] was a gradual process over about a year. I remember going up for three auditions. One of those was frightening, because you go to see a person who literally measures your bone structure and your hips and they measure your spine, because they need to know if you have the right kind of structure. As a child, that's terrifying. Can you imagine? They measured you very strictly, writing everything down and saying, "Hmmm, maybe." It's so terrifying.

What was your experience like at the RBS?

Like the army. Very strict and also very enjoyable in a very hard way. I learned so much, I had a wonderful training but at times it was very frustrating. I cried a lot and I laughed a lot. I remember once I was thrown out from a class because I had holes in my tights because I had no money to pay for a new leotard.

How did you find your way into Matthew's company, New Adventures?

There was a colleague at school who was very mischievous and he saw a poster in a corridor advertising "Matthew Bourne seeks males swans." So my friend was sort of joking, "Ah, you should trying being a swan, ha ha ha." I went to read that poster and I also read that Adam Cooper of the Royal Ballet company would take the leading role of the Swan. I knew who he was and I knew he would not take a part in a parody or something which was camp and stupid. So I thought about it . . . male swans . . . and I began to think that's fascinating, it could really work, so I went along to the audition. I went along to two very long days of auditions with many, many men. The material we learned was from "Highland Fling." So, 10 years ago I learned the material from "Highland Fling" when I was auditioning for my first job, which was "Swan Lake." That was back in 1995.

"Swan Lake" was a quite unique piece because, at that time, there was a press frenzy because people were worried that Matthew would create a very nasty parody, a camp, gay production. And I think people were very surprised when they came to see our "Swan Lake" and they saw how poignant it was and how meaningful it was, and how true it was to the original story and the essence of "Swan Lake." I think the role of the Swan encapsulates so much -- particularly for a male performer -- and I think that Matthew and this company have got a very strong reputation and have done a lot for male dancers and have given us men wonderful opportunities to explore all sorts of emotions and characters, and the Swan is really a very powerful character and part to play.

Did you see "Highland Fling" when it was first performed in 1994?

"Highland Fling" was the first production of Matthew's I'd ever seen -- at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994. Part of me was a bit shocked and I didn't quite know what I was watching. I think because I came from the Royal Ballet cocoon of classical academia, to come to watch something like "Highland Fling," which is so radical, colorful and dramatic, and which had so many strong characters, part of me did not know what make of it. But the other half of me thought this is something new and very clever and I believed I was about to join a company that was about to become very very big and create new and wonderful works.

Was that your turning point as a dancer?

It was fate that I wasn't chosen for the Royal Ballet Company [after graduating from the RBS] and I realized that my strengths weren't really in classical ballet. I in no way consider myself a classical dancer. I have always enjoyed more free, expressive ways of moving, particularly with contemporary dance, and again I enjoy characters, I enjoy telling a story. This work ["Highland Fling"] is perfect. The acting came out of working on projects, such as "The Car Man" and "Swan Lake," so out of that I began to approach my role as an actor would -- the only difference being that there are no words; we communicate through movement.

How did you read your character, James, in "Highland Fling"?

I think there is a lot within the characters that I can identify with. I've got a lot of British friends, Scottish, Welsh and Irish, and I find a common trait with them is that they are very proud countrymen, they have a sense of pride in where they come from -- whether it's the Scottish kilt, Welsh singing or (laughs) Irish drinking. I began to understand this when I first wore the kilt. When I was put it on, it actually made me stand in a particular way, and it was very empowering -- not like the English who might joke that "Ah, you're wearing a skirt" -- but it was about pride and a sense of history.

It is a tragic story that Matthew has set in present-day Glasgow, because you have a young man who parties too much and take drugs, because he's trying to escape from his humdrum life. And his friends are all the ones he's grown up with and he's about to marry his childhood sweetheart and he's sort of reached an area where nothing will change, and he's suddenly realized, "Is this the rest of my life?" So he takes more and more drugs and he hallucinates, and his hallucination is in the form of a sylph, which can also be interpreted as a butterfly, and his hallucination becomes an obsession. Suddenly, his hallucination drives him mad, because he wants her, he wants to be like her, he wants to grab on to her and have her fly away with him -- so in the end of Act One, he jumps out from the window to chase her.

Act Two is all about him chasing her and trying to capture this creature and possess it. Of course, whenever you chase or try to harness or possess your fantasies, it all goes wrong. He leaves behind his life, his friends and his wife-to-be and everything in order to chase this erotic, romantic free creature that he believes is incredibly exotic, new and fresh. Of course, after time, it will be less fresh and less exotic, so the tragedy is that he then -- as a lot of men do -- tries to control it, tries to make it human and to bring it to his world. And so we have a very shocking and tragic climax to "Highland Fling," which I cannot tell you here (laughs).

Do you think New Adventures is inspiring young audiences with their innovative approach to the classical dance?

I think it already has, because I think in the 10 years that I've worked for the company, I believe that I have also played an important part in changing the kind of work [it does] and when I joined I was very young. I think that's the beauty of this company: It's constantly evolving and creating new works depending on who is in the company, because the process is very collaborative.

It appears that there are now a lot of young people actually wanting to work in this kind of company. I think that it in turn attracts a young kind of audience, but again, an older audience can appreciate how clever it is, because it keeps true to the original classics.

Is there anything that local audiences should know to better enjoy the show?

It's got a particular sense of humor, a Scottish sense of humor. When I watched "A Play Without Words" in Japan, I realized the audiences were so polite and quiet. Bits of "Highland Fling" are very shocking and raw and rude and quite brash and I hope the Japanese audiences here won't take offense at it and will, in fact, laugh and make some noise, so that we on the stage can hear this and know that they are enjoying the humor.

I think, though, that audiences should be prepared to see somebody's bottom -- mooning -- and there are a lot of very hot-headed characters -- if you knock into them, they start a fight -- and there's lots of drinking. We portray guys exactly like ones in the movie "Trainspotting," very Glaswegian, and very hard nuts. It can appear quite shocking, but that's part of our humor and for James there are also some very comical moments, particularly when he's hallucinating about this creature. There are some lovely duets in Act One with the sylph and James. The sylph is very naughty, very mischievous.

The sylph is so different from the classical role.

Yes, our sylph is very gothic and very naughty and sexy and erotic. It's very cool to be like that, don't you think?

What kind of direction do you want to take next?

I still want to pursue acting very much. I am having great time with "Highland Fling," I'm loving the fact that I am actually dancing again. It's a wonderful feeling, but I'm enough of a realist to know that I won't be able to dance forever. There is no reason why I can't continue learning and developing as an actor. The older you get, very often the better you are as an actor, so I hope to be acting right until the grave (laughs).

How do you feel about being called the "James Dean of the dance world?"

I've been given a lot of names and I think that is fine. I think people like to compare people, to label people, and I have no problem with that. It's not such a bad comparison (laughs). But I also think it's important to lose who you are in a character. There is nothing more complimentary to me that the person who comes to watch my work whether it's on screen or on stage and they say, "When I first saw you it was Will, and after a while I forgot it was you; it was the character." That is the biggest compliment that I can ever have and that's what I aim for.

What is your job schedule like now?

It keeps changing. There is a possibility of more dance. I'm also hoping for more possibilities of films. Also, Matthew's next production is going to be "Edward Scissorhands." This is a project that I've been talking about with Matthew for six years. Every year it's been happening and then not happening. So it also very much depends if he still wants me to play Edward, and if it happens, then that's up to Matthew. There's also a production of Pinocchio at the Royal Opera House which is William Tuckett's. That would also be a possibility. So at this point there are a lot of possibilities.

What is your ambition in life?

Gosh! It's to stay true to who I am and pursue, like James, my fantasy -- and hopefully not with the tragic conclusions -- and to remain as happy and contented as I possibly can with my personal life and hope that my work and my ambition provide me with a fruitful, comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle.

"Highland Fling" will run June 23-July 10 at the Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo (Tokyo Arts Theater), a 3-minute walk from JR Ikebukuro Station. For more details call, Horipro at (03) 3490-4949 or visit www.la-sylphide.info

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