They play larger-than-life 1950s American types, denizens of an auto repair shop in a sweltering town: He plays Angelo, a sweet boy seduced by a rugged drifter named Luca, framed for murder, imprisoned, and seeking retribution at any cost; she's Rita, his sweetheart and the town's emotional caretaker. The next night he plays Luca and she plays Mercedes, an ensemble role.
It's all in a week's work for dancers Will Kemp and Etta Murfitt, stars of Matthew Bourne's aptly named Adventures in Motion Pictures company, a London-based dance production powerhouse that has premiered startling, often gender-bending ballets at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre over the past three years, starting with an all-male Swan Lake, then a Battle of Britain-set Cinderella. Now there's The Car Man, a superb, trans-gendering reworking of Mérimée/Bizet's opera Carmen, set in middle America.
Back Stage West went backstage at the Ahmanson to chat with Kemp and Murfitt, who, unlike their characters, are eminently English, snuggled into their downy sweats, fresh from taking company class—the warm-up session that precedes each show—and snacking on salads before the night's performance. Murfitt graduated from London Contemporary Dance School, then created various contemporary companies. Kemp graduated from the ultra-prestigious Royal Ballet School. Now they are remarkable stars of Bourne's new The Car Man.
Etta Murfitt: I joined Adventures in Motion Pictures, in January 1991. Ever since then I've been working on every show, involved in the creating of it, plus doing the odd part every now and then. I'm also an associate director of this show. So I help create the storylines, characters, choreography. I teach class, rehearse people…
Will Kemp: The casting, as well.
Etta: Yes, because there are four people for every part, more or less. So I do the running week cast, to make sure it works out.
Will: In two weeks, when you go home, it will all fall apart.
Etta: I'm sure it will all be fine.
Will: This is her little motto: [Falsetto] "It will all be fine." I joined AMP fresh out of college—the Royal Ballet School—in 1995, for Swan Lake. I had to get used to a completely new environment. The Royal was like the army; it's the most intense regime and structure I've ever had. I actually found great freedom in a company brave enough to try new things: creating parts that were traditionally for women, reinterpreting a swan. I found freedom from having such a tight, restricted regime of two years constantly being told what was wrong. And I was wrong most of the time—whereas here I was able to express myself to really great choreography and to work with a superb team that would constantly encourage you to use your own personality, to portray a character. That was the most important thing. This is what I was really meant for.
Etta: Prior to going to London Contemporary Dance School, I'd done loads of drama at school and amateur dramatics. I loved acting. It was one of the things I still wanted to do. When I started working with AMP, I suddenly thought, All right, I can start acting again, I've got a character. I can put my love of dancing and love of acting together and still not have to talk, which I don't like to do.
Will: At the Royal, one of the classes I enjoyed most was "theatre craft," which is miming and playing all those classical characters: the witch, the gypsy lover, the evil sorcerer. I love that. We had a very good drama teacher who battled to get us all in there at the same time, to stop pissing around. Very few of us were actually interested in words, in language, in acting. I was probably the only one, actually, and I got the piss ripped out of me because of it. You get used to it—when you're a guy in this world, you're used to people ripping the piss out of you whenever they can.
Etta: I'm terrible. I still tear the piss out of you.
Will: Well, but that's part of our relationship, isn't it?
Will: It's particularly nice to create my own character. I had a very large chance to say what I thought should happen and the kind of character I was interested in. You could say I created Angelo but played Luca.
Etta: On this tour I do Rita, Angelo's girlfriend, because we've had lots of injuries. But the other part I play is Mercedes, one of the ensemble roles. Each person within the company concentrates on one role first. So you spent more time working on Angelo than you would have done on Luca because it's too much to do; whereas [principal dancer] Alan Vincent spent more time on Luca than on his other role, Dirk. You have to pick one, otherwise it becomes a bit ridiculous. You can't focus. There was constant talk about the character—what you think, what you feel, how she grew up. It's good to be able to talk that through with a group all doing the same role. We did four weeks of development, then eight weeks of rehearsals with the whole company.
Will: This is a nice chance for us to work as equals and to partner. We perform, maximum, five times a week, providing we're all healthy. The minute a person is injured, it all goes up. A few weeks ago I did six shows out of seven playing Angelo. This week I've got two Angelos and two Lucas. I look at Angelo and Luca as two halves of the same person, which in some ways helps me not get so frightened of swapping around. Having played Luca, I learn a lot more about Angelo, and vice versa. But with Angelo I always feel it's coming home. It's like, OK, great, let's put on the makeup and have fun.
Etta: Fun? I don't have fun.
Will: In the artistic sense.
Etta: I do have fun doing it, but it's quite emotionally draining for me. A lot of things happen to that character. It gets worse as the show goes on.
Will: And you're that kind of character who lives through the other characters, who inhabits all the other characters' pain and problems and is worried for them, about them.
Etta: So by the time shutters come down at the end of that last duet I'm relieved. It is quite horrible. They all change and become different people. And offstage each one goes, "All right?" Because they're so worried that they've been so nasty.
Will: We had a week of fight technique rehearsal from a fight arranger. You wouldn't want to mess with this guy. The number of people who got black eyes—not from mucking around but from getting so excited having the chance to have power.
Etta: We all learned how to hit and make noise...
Will: ...and to punch and react and kick and smash people's heads against walls and tables. And the trick is, and we've actually recently had a little chat about this, to try to push the envelope to make it look like it's the first time it ever happened, and to try to step out of choreography, although it's highly choreographed and generally very musical. But it works only when it takes the audience by surprise and looks as if it's taking the two parties completely by surprise.
Need a Lift
Will: Partnering you is a joy. Before curtain I walk onstage in my costume and you're always there, five minutes before I am, warming up. And I hear [falsetto], "Lift me. Can we just go over it? Lift me." We habitually go through a particular duet. It really helps.
Etta: I love being lifted.
Will: And it warms me up. And it brings us in...
Etta: ...together. There are so many performers who go out onstage having not seen each other during the day. I have to touch base with the person I'm going to be with that night. I've got them all trained, all the Angelos, and they all know that they have to come out and do it.
Will: The other night here—when this happens I love it. There's one piece of choreography when I swing around your neck and pretend like I'm dead. One night you, for some reason, staggered backward and fell over...
Etta: With you laying right across me. I'd never done it before....
Will: It was one of those classic moments. We were both so in our characters that I was pretending to be dead. I rolled over so I could look at you.
Etta: I was panicking.
Will: So we improvised and got straightaway back into it. It's times like that you laugh and remember for weeks afterward. I love things like that because it's so real and it tests you. That's a very strong test of character and how you view your work. But it was all fine.
Etta: I always say,"It will all be fine." And it was. It was all fine. BSW