Toronto has never seen a grand entrance quite so grand, quite so transfixing. Down the stairs comes Salomé: orange plumes frame her chalk-white face, the lips are a gaudy red, the beads and sequins on her gown throw off a thousand sparkles. All
movement in the theatre ceases as Salomé picks her delicate way across the stage like an infinitely vulnerable and fragile geisha. The eyes flutter, the lips quiver. A wistful half-smile plays across her mouth—perhaps not least from the knowledge that she
has the audience in the palm of her hand. With this star arrival Lindsay Kemp, 40ish son of a British naval officer, sets the stage for a version of Oscar Wilde’s dangerous dancer that’s wholly mesmerizing in its finesse and pure theatrical power.
Rightly, the Lindsay Kemp Company, appearing in Toronto for the first time, is the hottest show in town. It opened two months ago with Kemp’s pantomime production of Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet’s novel of prison fantasies. Flowers, too, was rapturously received by critics, and Kemp’s own dazzling performance as the pathetic, aging transvestite Divine—in a show that opened with masturbation, moved on to fellatio, and ended in blood— sent audiences reeling out of the theatre. “Overwhelming,” observed one matron, adding with a sigh: “And now I’ve got to go home.”
Kemp’s work is richly textured and flamboyant; it appeals to the senses more than the intellect. Using pantomime, dance, high camp, nudity and ear-ripping music (heavy on Wagner amplified to the threshold of pain), he creates extravaganzas suffused in smoke, incense and violence. Its very theatricality, of course, offends some, and his detractors say that Kemp’s work is no more than a drag show with artistic pretentions—self-indulgent, decadent, excessively homoerotic.
Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes is one of the pricklier dissenters. Flowers, Beddoes confided noisily, “made me want to throw up.” It’s a minority view, and the box-office business at Toronto Workshop Productions suggests that few theatregoers are wired to Beddoes’ intestinal uncertainties. TWP administrator June Faulkner brought the company in from Britain for a five-week stay through the end of April. It was a gamble: the theatre wanted international spice for its season, but Faulkner privately worried that Kemp’s flamboyance might not click in Toronto. In fact her gamble has paid off so well that Kemp and his company are staying until mid-June.
The man who created these productions is small, with an impish face, shaven head, huge ears, and given to sweeping gestures and hyperbole. “I have a reputation,” he says, “for making magic”—also one for perfectionism, though none for false modesty. He includes himself securely on a short list of artists such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Chagall and the Russian Ballet. “For me a stage is like a painting,” he says, “I concoct the colors and I define the subject matter.”
A descendant of one of the clowns at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Kemp was urged to follow his father into the navy (“my mother didn’t realize I was giftfed”), soon left, took mime and dance classes, and gradually developed his own performing style. He formed his current company in 1966, and has become a London cult figure with a cult’s claque of devoted disciples. Kemp claims, with some reason, to have founded rock’s “glitter” movement;
certainly he is its father figure, and among the company’s alumni is rock singer David Bowie, whose compelling stage presence and gaudily ambiguous sexuality owe much to Kemp’s teaching,
Shunned by the stuffy British Arts Council, which consistently denies his company any subsidy, Kemp scrounges free-lance work in London and takes his company touring whenever he can. Along the way he often picks up fans who become part of the company—either permanently, like The Incredible Orlando, who is totally blind and has worked with Kemp since 1962, or temporarily, like the legendary dancer Anton Dolin, who at 73 is in To-
ronto playing Herod in Salomé just for the Kemp experience.
This experience is basically an immersion course in homosexual sensibility. The company flopped on Broadway, where such sensibility is less theatrically unique than in Toronto, which has never seen it presented with such force and skill. “Toronto theatres are so deeply involved in bleakness that there’s little color on stage here,” notes Globe and Mail critic emeritus Herbert Whittaker. “Kemp’s exotic imagination is a relief.” Says Kemp expansively, throwing his arms open like Isadora Duncan: “I want to offer everything to the
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