An Interview with Will Kemp
James Dean is staring at me. Hanging from the mirror in Will Kemp's dressing room, the postcard of the brooding icon draws you like a moth to a light, oddly, the only personal effect in the room. Addressed to "the James Dean of Dance," an inside joke between Will and his parents, he lingers over the words as he reads it aloud, a bit wistful at a final note that the "puppies" are fine. He stares at it a bit longer then turns his attention back to me. First, his clear blue/brown eyes lock onto me. Then, his body turns toward me focusing his entire attention in my direction. It's at once surprising and complimentary, so rare is it that anyone truly listens or pays attention to anyone these days. It's not that he sees through you with those eyes, it's more that he sees you and only you. Like the postcard, here's a man who's intense gaze makes you feel like there's nothing else in the room at the moment. But don't be mistaken, he doesn't miss a beat.
Will currently stars as Angelo, the hapless young man who falls victim to the actions of a wandering stranger named Luca in Matthew Bourne's touring production of "Car Man." Will's intensity has drawn the attention of audience members before as the Swan in Bourne's production of "Swan Lake," and Angel in "Cinderella." One of these audience members was so smitten by his performances, Paramount Pictures studios head Sherry Lansing, she gave him the moniker, the "James Dean of Dance" which he now tries to laugh off. But after seeing him in action in "Car Man," it's hard not to make the same comparison.
I was able to grab a few minutes with Will as he sat in his dressing room before curtain one evening. He's off tonight but has to report through the first act, just in case he's called to replace someone in either of the two roles he plays in this production. His dressing room is surprisingly spare, almost entirely devoid of personal effects save for the picture postcard, which now stares down at us from its place on his mirror.
EL: When I interviewed Matthew a few days ago, he made reference to preferring to hire dancers who can act versus dancers who can dance. So, I'm curious, is "Car Man" more of an acting experience for you?
WK: I think with the "Car Man" particularly, there was an actual choice with Matthew particularly, to make this stronger on the acting part of it. "Swan Lake" wasn't as strong on the acting particularly because there was only about three, maybe four proper characters. I think choreographically, "Swan Lake" was linked very much more toward classical structure, as was certainly for me, playing the Swan, a lot more demanding for me technically in certain areas. The "Car Man" is very character driven. There isn't one person who doesn't have a good character -- where they came from, what there proper names are, how they relate with all the other characters. So with the "Car Man" it was a lot of concentration on who you are, why you're there. So a lot of the choreography came from which character you were playing. It almost happened the other way around, the characters came first and then, depending on character would determine how they move and why they did something.
EL: How was this different for you versus a classical piece?
WK: The only experience I have with a purely classical piece was in training at the Royal Ballet Opera School, going back seven, eight years now. So in that respect it was all about trying to look exactly like the person next to you in line, hitting the right count in the right way, and trying not to be too individual. The moment you started playing with the choreography you were wrong. And my limited experience with classical would say there is very much a right way and a wrong way, it's very black and white; whereas the work which we now create or are performing, there is almost not a right way or a wrong way. Meaning that if you can make it work for your character, generally it is okay. The other end of that is, when you're in a company without such a rigid framework, there are a lot of opinions on how you should do things. Here, if you can make it work and it's not ridiculously different, then you can do it.
EL: Is it an easier experience for you, dancing a classical piece versus this?
WK: I don't think there's a sort of one's harder and one's easier. For me, this is perfect. I don't think I would have had nearly as much chance to explore the kind of work, the kind of characters and to actually have learned a lot about me in a classical company. It just wouldn't have happened. For me I don't think I could have achieved as much in a classical company. I think it would have been harder. This isn't easy either.
EL: Do you approach this role as a dancer first or as the character?
WK: As a character first. When we were talking about the narrative, the characters and the actual story we were trying to achieve, it was very much character driven. At the same time we always worked very closely with music. The music will very often tell you how you were meant to be feeling. From that you then have the choreography. That's where choreography comes from. And I think that once you actually rehearse and create it -- the choreography -- and sufficiently worked on it in a studio, so you actually know and you're happy with it; for me I try not to worry to much about it because I've already worked hard enough that it should happen very naturally. Then I can have the majority of my head in the character so then it can come across as very truthful, because I'm obviously not worrying about the choreography too much and concentrating on the character.
EL: As a writer, there's a moment of surprise where a character just told you it doesn't want to do what you want it to do.
WK: -- Yes! Yes! Yes!
EL: And it all comes out a very different way.
WK: -- And you're almost not in control anymore.
EL: Was there a moment when this happened to you?
WK: I think the process is quite similar, actually. There comes a point where we talked about the way the piece will work and my part in the whole narrative. Particularly in the "Car Man," my character kept on changing, not through a particularly natural way. Matthew wanted to push relationships further and to really raise the level of why things happen. There was a time when I would say that I enjoyed breathing through another character, and you begin to get your head inside someone else, in another place. You actually have less control and it's somehow more real and organic. When you set up a characteristic, a character profile, you work in all the relevant points and slowly you work out how it all works. Then if you come up to a point of choreography or a confrontation with another character, you know instinctively what has to happen. What was lovely about having the chance to create the Angelo character was that I was very aware I would have the chance to play this character for years. So, I was very keen very early on to set a character, a really good character path or journey, that I wouldn't get tired of playing. I have to admit it's one of the first times I don't come in and go, "Ugh! I have to go on again tonight." In that respect it's great to always play a character you can just release.
EL: "Swan Lake." It's a very different take on the story. Matthew related a story where Baryshnikov came and saw a rehearsal and he said it forever changed his impression of that story. Did this change your impression of the story?
WK: Yeah. This is the first production I joined the company for in 1995, fresh out of the Royal Ballet School where I'd seen "Swan Lake" 'um-teen' times, watched the company rehearse it, knew it practically. We were in a room listening to the classical music, talking about swans and how powerful swans really were. The reason why Matthew cast guys as swans was to bring out the masculinity within the swan, the aggressiveness, the power, the strength, and yet to maintain a graceful quality. All of this makes perfect sense.
I remember in rehearsals just closing my eyes and hearing the classical music, and then I'd look around the room and there were all these blokes jumping around playing out swans, the aggression, the power, the strength. This actually really works. It actually hit home and I believe rings true to the music and what really happens in "Swan Lake," with the Swan and it's relationship with the Prince. With our "Swan Lake," it's very clear -- the Prince whose trapped in this routine, to dress a certain way, to act a certain way, whereas inside he's always wanting this freedom to get out from within himself. And he somehow projects that on this Swan, this strong, powerful creature which is also incredibly free. I think that in our "Swan Lake" that's incredibly clear. A lot of the elements are not clear in a classical production. It was evident very early on that we were being incredibly true.
What's really interesting is the music for "Swan Lake" is phenomenal. It's passionate. It has the power to actually lift you up and transport you. Whereas I personally very rarely get that from a classical production of "Swan Lake." With our "Swan Lake" at least you're viewing characters you can relate to, and through them you can almost re-hear the music and be transported to the Palace, to the Park.
EL: I get what you're saying. It's something I was thinking about during "Giselle" the other night (ABT in San Diego). Great production but at times the narrative was almost not as good as the music.
WK: This is the thing, particularly when you're hearing phenomenally good music ["Swan Lake"], which generally we've all heard twice in our lives. When you watch a production when you know what it meant and where it came from, you're always trying to compare it. So when you're watching, you say, "That didn't happen in the original. That's new in this particular version." Unless you can capture the audience to let go of all the other versions they've watched, to make them trust you and this particular version, you'll always have that moment of "Ah… That didn't happen." You've never really captured the audience. They're somewhere else.
EL notes: We digressed a bit here and ended up talking about movie production, which can at times be a nightmare. I mentioned a show I had done -- happily one he was very fond of -- and what a difficult challenge it had been. Yet through the whole process we knew it was going to be something special. I asked Will if he'd ever had this experience.
WK: "Swan Lake" was like that, completely. We had a lot of freedom as a group. The one key element which we knew would make the Swans work was they had to act and react like a pack. So we all got incredibly close and worked on all sorts of weird and wacky choreography. We made the Swans work as a unit through talking about character and motivation. There was a whole patch where we just knew literally all of the people, the cast originally of fourteen Swans, everyone was just firing out ideas. And from that point we all knew it was really, really going to work and past the whole sort of thing where, "I hope this works. This is a risk." At the time there was some pre-publicity that was highly negative. Once we got over that we knew we had something very magical and it was going to work.
EL: I watched about half of the company class the other day. I was struck by how you move on stage. It's almost like something inside moves you. Even in a company class, I couldn't stop watching you. Because of that I'm curious, why do you dance?
WK: Hmmm. There's a can of worms. Why would you want to pursue anything unless you can find something in it that is purely personal. Because if it gets really tough, if the competition gets harder, you know at the core of what you are pursuing, there's something to which you can connect, that's yours. I began to find that when I was a kid. I didn't first dance until I was about nine. I was an intense child, quite shy, and generally had a hard time communicating. I found I could communicate if I channeled in to this particular place that I just mentioned. And I began to feel very comfortable within that place, and it's that place that I come home to in any area. And it's that place that helps me to be truthful. Does that sound weird?
EL: No, not at all.
WK: It's about finding what really, really makes you you. When you've found it you encourage that part to grow and you never lose that part of you.
EL: Do you have a show that you'd like to choreograph or that you'd like to create and choreograph?
WK: I have had the chance to choreograph, primarily working with young kids. But as far as one piece I'd like to choreograph or do, there's lots of things that fly around in my head but nothing I'd really like to do. To be honest, I don't think that's where my talent lies particularly.
EL: Favorite dancer or role model?
WK: I'm not huge on role models per se. I've had the great privilege to work with some wonderful dancers, particularly very early on with "Swan Lake" -- I was working with Adam [Cooper], who was fantastic and I certainly learned a lot from him.
EL: Favorite dance movie?
WK: Generally, I cringe -- I still believe it is an incredibly hard task to capture a dancer on film. What's harder is to make it interesting, relevant, and make the audience care. It's a very strange job [dancing] and it can very easily separate you from the rest of the world, and to capture that is incredibly hard. The only film I have watched that I felt captured the essence I felt as a kid was -- guess what? -- "Billy Elliot." I sat through that and at the end was raw. I was almost upset. I thought, "How dare he." I'd just had my whole childhood. How clever. And I thought I was the only one that had that kind of passion. For me, that one.
EL: Best moment on stage?
WK: I have so many. From playing a part and just knowing that everything... choreography, the costume, the orchestra, you're in tune, you're on it. You know you could not have been more perfect. That's a great feeling. Recently, we were performing in Act II -- Angelo's return where he comes back from prison. There's all this creepy stuff, and I'm partnering Etta. There's a bit where I twist around and she steps back and drags me. And she stepped back about three steps and fell over with me. There I am lying on the floor pretending I'm dead, and she rolls over with me facing the audience, and we improvised the next 3/8's. That kind of thing happens so rarely thank God, but at the same time it is so real and so there; the audience is there, you've gone wrong and you have to get it back. There's hundreds of priceless little things like that that keep you on your toes.
EL: What about your worst moment on stage?
WK: I actually went through a bad patch when I was young, about 14. I went through a year where I could not perform and remember the choreography. It became this running joke -- my teacher and my mother were just like, "Please remember what we worked on in the studio for the past month." Sure enough I'd be concentrating, doing my thing, and I'd look into this black void that is the audience and I'd forget what I was doing and I'd just make it up. I'd try to be really convincing, prancing around through the steps probably changing them halfway through the move. The audience must have been sitting there thinking "This is nice," and half way through go, "What the hell is that?"
- An Auto-Erotic Thriller -
- Talk about the show -
All photos copyright 2001 Lara Hartley unless noted otherwise
All contributions as noted in each feature.