Two steps removed from dance
Lindsay Kemp (left) has been accused of reducing dance to the level of high-camp pantomime, while Rosemary Butcher (right) aspires to remove dancers from dance altogether. Ellen Cranitch and Sophie Constanti on two of dance's most determined outsiders The work represents the music hall tradition. `Kemp is the missing link between High Art and Light Entertainment' An uncompromising modernist, Butcher has spent 20 years ridding dance of superf luous theatricality
Thursday 12 January 1995
Kemp first arrived in London from Bradford in the Sixties. He shared a flat with Steven Berkoff in Drury Lane and met David Bowie through their shared agent, Brian Epstein. Bowie and Kemp became lovers, both fascinated by Japanese culture, androgyny and mime. Bowie took classes with Kemp. Kemp co-devised and appeared as guest artist in the Ziggy Stardust concerts. Other friends included David Hockney, with whom he'd gone to art school in Bradford and Mick and Bianca Jagger. Later, when the Kemp company played at the Roundhouse, London, he made an impression on the young Kate Bush, who offered her services as coffee-maker. Last year he choreographed her video.
Yet despite his intimacy with, and enormous influence on, great movers and shakers of these decades, Kemp himself remains outside the cultural mainstream. "He is the great neglected genius of 20th-century theatre," claims his biographer, the writer and director Nick Hedges. Why?
In the early Seventies, Kemp proclaimed his artistic manifesto: "What I want to do is to restore to the theatre the glamour of the Folies Bergeres, the danger of the circus, the sexuality of rock 'n' roll and the ritual of death." His works, from the celestial decadence of Flowers (1969), to the unholy orgy that was Salome, through Nijinsky, winner of the 1983 Olivier award for dance, Midsummer Night's Dream, Alice and now Cinderella, have all been passionate spectacles, blending the raucous with the ro mantic, parody with naivety and the vulgar with the avant-garde. Despite all the European influences - commedia dell'arte, Marcel Marceau, Genet - the work represents a particular English tradition with roots in Variety, music hall, and English seasideh umour. Nick Hedges says: "Kemp is the missing link between High Art and Light Entertainment."
Unsurprisingly, they have always polarised the critics. In 1991, the Independent praised Onnagata for "the charisma of Kemp's stage presence", while the Evening Standard felt it failed "as dance, drama and even spectacle." When, in 1977, the Sunday Timesand Time Out joined forces to proclaim him a directorial "wizard" and "the only great metteur en scene in English theatre" the Times Literary Supplement pronounced Salome "one of the most banal concatenations of exhausted symbols ever presented as serious art".
What critics find specifically objectionable about Kemp's work is its "self-indulgence." Detractors claim works about Salome or Nijinsky have little to do with their subjects and too much to do with Kemp. They point to a paucity of imagination and poverty of structure resulting in a recycling of the same seamy preoccupations. Since Kemp's art depends as much on his personality as on his technique, reviewers can get personal. In the past there's been an implicit criticism of an overtly gay sensibility.
His numerous admirers, however, find the work's sexual slant liberating, Kemp's physical technique masterly, his stage presence mesmeric. Berkoff recalls first seeing Kemp in action: "Everything else seemed to pale; he had such a power, he could emanate theatrical mystery. He was childish, anarchic, sexually ambiguous." Kate Bush adds: "He made me believe magic does exist." Kemp's defenders argue his works are homages to, not dramas about, their subjects, and they applaud his persistent probing of the dark areas of the subconscious.
Now, plotting his return to this country, Kemp dreams of converting the sceptics: "I want them to know I'm the real thing. In England I still have this label: frivolous, camp, superficial. Like any clown I want to be taken seriously, yet I insist on disguising my seriousness with frivolity."
For all the virtues of Cinderella - and this is a meaty production, rigorously adherent to demands of narrative and score - it may be too late now, when the 1990s vogue in physical theatre is more for the muscular ingenuity of Theatre de Complicite than Kemp's vulnerable lyricism.
Nick Hedges, his biographer, is impatient: "He should use Cinderella as a springboard into directing opera. The source material he's always been attracted to is operatic. That would bring him money, status, acclaim." But perhaps the main reason for Kemp's outsider status is that he wants to be on the outside. From Flowers to Cinderella, his works have all been fuelled by sympathy for the outcast.
Berkoff says: "I know no one else who could have held a company together for so many years, constantly touring, with no regular subsidy and no physical base. You can only salute the phenomenal commitment to his own belief."
n `Cinderella - a Gothic Operetta' is at the Oxford Playhouse from 19-21 January. It is part of the International Mime Festival, which runs from 14-29 January. EC Wander into the Royal College of Art's Upper Gulbenkian Gallery this week and you will findyourself surrounded by dancers. Jonathan Burrows to your front or left, Gill Clarke to your right, Deborah Jones behind you . . . Stand as close to them - or to Dennis Greenwood, Fin Walker or Russell Maliphant - as you like: they won't know you're there. Stay for 10 minutes or two hours: this performance has no fixed beginning and no real end.
Wherever you turn in the dark, screened-off area that houses After the Last Sky - a video-dance installation which is the work of the choreographer Rosemary Butcher, the film-maker David Jackson and the composer Simon Fisher Turner - you can be sure of coming face to face with the performers or, rather, with their full-size, moving forms, recorded on film and projected on to the four sides of the specially constructed enclosure. In spite of their intangible, two-dimensional quality and the fact that they seem to emanate from nowhere, the figures are uncannily lifelike. And the experience of being in their grainy-textured company is rendered all the more perplexing by the effects of Jackson's computerised layering and duplication. T his might juxtapose a lone performer with two or more of the work's series of rectangular panels depicting Arizona desert skies; or allow a quadruplicated Russell Maliphant to occupy all four walls simultaneously.
Labelled "dance without dancers", a more accurate description of After the Last Sky is "dancers without dance". For although the work features skilled performers, the kind of movement that Butcher requires of them is rooted in an inordinate pedestrianism. Understatement tempers every action; the low drama of everyday tasks - shoelaces being untied, trousers hoisted up - is painstakingly observed. There is still an elemental shape, clarity and impulse, but that is all. An uncompromising modernist, she has spent the past 20 years ridding dance of superfluous theatricality in an attempt to reveal movement in its purest distillations.
As the first student on a new course at Dartington College of Arts in 1965, Butcher's training included improvisation as well as codified modern dance in the form of Graham technique. Later, in America, she learnt Doris Humphrey's "fall and recovery" principles and made her way to Merce Cunningham's studio in New York. But it was on a subsequent trip to New York in 1970 that Butcher discovered American post-modern dance and began to develop her own choreographic voice. She was one of the first British choreographers to take dance out of the theatre and relocate it in gallery spaces - she was involved in collaborative work long before "cross-arts" and "multimedia" became buzz words. Her company made its debut at the Serpentine Gallery in 1976; in 1990 she showed part of her "d1. d2. 3d." dance and architecture project at Christ Church, Spitalfields in London. Over the years, Butcher's collaborators have included visual artists such as Heinz-Dieter Pietsch and Anya Gallaccio, architects Zaha Hadid and John Lyall, and the composer Michael Nyman, whose music was the motor for her most lyrical pieces, Flying Lines and Touch the Earth.
Both David Jackson and Simon Fisher Turner - her collaborators on After the Last Sky - are relative newcomers to dance. Fisher Turner, who supplied the music for sixDerek Jarman films, created the ambient sound-score for Butcher's last performance, Body as Site (and will play live when the event is recreated at Guildford Cathedral later this month). Jackson, an independent film- and video-maker, first worked with Butcher on an 18-minute film version of Body as Site. After the Last Sky grew out of an exploration of themes of physical restriction, exile and control, initiated by Edward Said's writings on life in the occupied territories of the Middle East and John Mohr's photographic illustrations. But the result is an essentially abstract artwork in whi ch Butcher, Jackson and Fisher Turner manage to construct an environment of mental and physical borders without binding themselves to Said's text.
Like much of Butcher's work, After the Last Sky has a pared-down quality based in naturalisticmovement, which isn't lost in its translation to film. "David's skill is in how he doesn't alter the purity of the movement," says Butcher of Jackson. "It isn'tabout fades and resolves - it's absolute record, like newsreel." Last summer, while Fisher Turner travelled to Israel to collect street sounds - bells ringing, people talking, children playing, even a diesel lorry struggling up a hill - Jackson was driving 3,000 miles through Arizona and New Mexico, trying to catalogue the multi-hued desert skies which fill the installation with vivid colour, accentuating the black and white sobriety of the human figures.
For most of her career, Butcher has hovered between the dance and visual art worlds. In the dance world, her work is regarded as too cerebral and unspectacular for mainstream tastes. In the visual art world, it has been received with guarded but more open-minded interest, as though it doesn't quite belong. But Butcher doubts she could ever go back to presenting her work in theatres (she last did so in 1989). "I don't think I could make dances in any way that I'm seeing people make dance today. That is, organising forms in space, on stage. What I am trying to show is that the language of the human body - its humanity - can be as important as anything else in performance."
n `After the Last Sky' runs until 15 January, 10am-6pm daily, at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery, Royal College of Art, London SW7. Admission free. `Body as Site' is revived on 30 January at Guildford Cathedral (0483 259905). SC
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