“Lindsay was really the grandfather of glam rock, punk and the new romantics. David Bowie was the dad, Leigh Bowery, Boy George, all his children. His influence went on and on and on.” - David Meyer
Lindsay Kemp, dancer and mime, died suddenly on August 24, 2018, aged 80. Kemp was a magical, Puck-like being, who would hypnotise everyone who met him, from children to the Imperial Princess of Japan. His theatre productions, including Flowers, Salome, The Parades Gone By, Duende, Mr. Punch and Cruel Garden were visually so astonishing that spectators occasionally passed away. (An audience member famously died during Volpone at the Garrick Theatre.) “Lindsay goes in deep to everybody, so everybody talking about Lindsay is also talking about themselves,” his closest artistic collaborator, David Haughton, said at his funeral. “And that’s a beautiful thing, too.”
Lindsay started entertaining as a child in the bomb raid shelters of World War II, later honing his shows in the strip clubs and tiny Soho theatres of the 1960s. He was inspired by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Japanese kabuki and butoh, silent films, opera, music hall and more. As a naturally charismatic person and performer, he drew the world’s leading artists to him: Rudolf Nureyev, Marcel Marceau, Joan Miró, Federico Fellini, Alec Guinness, Ken Russell and Derek Jarman all became his friends and collaborators over the years. In the late ’50s, he had been the first to perform on stage with a purposefully shaved head, which shocked audiences at the time.
Lindsay’s expressive face, dazzling blue eyes and hysterical sense of humour entranced a 19-year-old David Bowie at a performance of Lindsay’s show Clowns in 1966, and some years later, a youthful Kate Bush. He would go on to work with both of these giants of rock and pop, influencing the art that shaped a generation and developing personal relationships with them that stood the test of time.
Lindsay Kemp was born in Irby in 1938, and grew up working-class and poor in South Shields in the north of England during the war. Tragedy struck his family early, when his older sister died from meningitis, and then his father, a sailor on HMS Patroclus, was killed by a U-boat torpedo that destroyed his ship.
His mother treated him as a “replacement child” for her dead daughter, Lindsay told me in 2008. She dressed him in kimonos, put makeup on his face and would take him around the neighbourhood. She was seen as scandalous, Lindsay’s childhood friend Yvonne told me in 2016: “a scarlet woman” in her fur coat, bright red lipstick and perfume. When the local lads jeered at Lindsay and called him a “sissy,” his mother would say, “He’s artistic!” He desperately tried to cheer her up by entertaining her during her frequent depression. “The quickest way to heaven,” Lindsay once said, “was music.” He never forgot the words to the songs he’d play for his mother, and would sing them whilst dancing through the streets or in impromptu performances to journalists to disguise his shyness. He recalls hearing “the wind-up gramophone playing ‘The Grasshoppers Dance,’ ‘Little Dolly Daydream,’ ‘Get Along Little Donkey.’ While I was still small enough, I used to climb inside the gramophone cabinet to get the full impact of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’”
Lindsay’s productions and drawings always featured sailors. In fashion folklore, some believe it was the sailors in Flowers that inspired Gaultier’s iconic perfume bottle. Lindsay loved old Hollywood movies with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. His favourite film was The Red Shoes. There was no line between his real life and being onstage. “You must dance every dance as if it is your last dance – every day, every performance is a miracle,” Lindsay said this year on Italian television. “You must live it as fully as possible with maximum joy, maximum desire – you must abandon yourself to the music totally.”
Lindsay felt that “it is an artist’s duty to raise the spirit of the audience with their art,” whether that was an audience of one person or a thousand. The performance had to be “true,” you couldn’t pretend, you had to free it from inside yourself. “Each gesture should be a postcard from your heart to the audience.”
In the ’70s, he taught classes at London studio The Dance Centre, which quickly became the place to be. “Letting go completely is what Lindsay taught at the Dance Centre,” David Meyer, star of the company Lindsay founded in 1968, told me in a recent interview. Lindsay did not teach conventional dance classes; he had his own technique that was about freeing people up from themselves. His exercises included turning to the person to the left of you and falling madly in love with them. From artists to secretaries, they all came to Lindsay’s classes. His technique influenced Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Vivian Stanshall, King Crimson, The Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, Peter Gabriel, Holly Johnson, Marc Almond, Leigh Bowery, Boy George, Annie Lennox, Coil, and Kate Bush amongst others. Lindsay was adored by his students, and the feeling was mutual.
Lindsay’s impact on Kate Bush can be seen in the way she moves so expressively on-stage. In a 2016 Newsnight interview, Lindsay said of Bush that she was very “timid” at first, “but once she got going she was savage.” She dedicated the opening song of her debut album, The Kick Inside, to Lindsay in 1978, and he went on to star in her short film The Line, The Cross & The Curve in 1993.
When he died, Kate Bush posted a tribute on her website: “To call him a mime artist is like calling Mozart a pianist. He was very brave, very funny and above all, astonishingly inspirational. There was no-one quite like Lindsay. I was incredibly lucky to study with him, work with him and spend time with him. I loved him very much and will miss him dearly.”
It was Lindsay’s collaboration with David Bowie, however, that would cause a worldwide sensation and catapult Bowie to super-stardom.
When a struggling Bowie met Lindsay for the first time in 1966, Brian Epstein was managing both Lindsay and The Beatles. Post-war London was conservative, and being gay was still illegal. However, “the austerity of the ’50s had been a social leveller,” producer Graham Massey told me recently. “It was suddenly this mixing of society in London. Working class lads like The Beatles and The Stones were hanging out with royalty in the ’60s.”
It was in this world of post-war transition that Lindsay and Bowie became friends. “Lindsay said he didn’t teach Bowie to do any mime because he was never a dancer, but Lindsay did teach him about stillness and the idea of creating a startling image,” Meyer told me. “That’s what Bowie got from Lindsay – the painted face; it was a different face from Lindsay’s, but it reproduced the effect.”
“When Bowie brought out his first LP wearing a dress and with long hair, he was invited to Andy Warhol’s Factory,” continued Meyer. “He stood there awkwardly not knowing what to do, so he did Lindsay’s old mime of taking out his innards. It’s on a Warhol film.”
Not long after they met, Lindsay and Bowie became lovers. Lindsay wrote about the morning after the first night they spent together in his as-yet unpublished memoir. “We woke early the next morning. Light was filtering through the lace-like curtains, and the strains of ‘Penny Lane’ were coming up from the street below. The music was being played by an old man on a gramophone which he pushed around Soho on a battered pram, collecting pennies. It was said that he had met and befriended The Beatles, and that they always sent him a preview copy of their latest records, and that they bailed him out of jail every morning after he’d spent the night there for drunkenness and disturbing the peace.”
Lindsay and Bowie talked about creating a show together. “David was thrilled with the idea... and so was I,” Lindsay wrote in his memoir. “Improvising enthusiastically, I said it should be a backstage story about a little travelling theatre troupe, made up of my favourite archetypal characters: Harlequin […] and Pierrot […] with David playing a balladeer and a protean role. […] David suggested that the show could maybe be called Pierrot in Turquoise, explaining that the colour turquoise was the Buddhist symbol of everlastingness. The ideas poured out thick and fast.”
Bowie was seduced by Lindsay’s Bohemian world: “One of the most exciting people I worked with was Lindsay Kemp,” he said in a TV interview. “I had joined the circus. Lindsay lived on his emotions. He was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I’d ever seen, ever. Everything I thought Bohemia probably was, he was living it.”
“It’s easy to smile and shake one’s head at the naivety of it all now,” Lindsay wrote in his memoirs, “but only in retrospect: at the time we were looking ahead not backwards, and it didn’t seem impossible to change the world’s values…”
The pair first toured Pierrot in Turquoise in 1967, but it turned into a disastrous love-triangle when Bowie became romantically involved with Lindsay’s best friend, Natasha Korniloff. Lindsay thought of throwing himself off Whitehaven Pier, “but it was too cold.” He attempted slashing his wrists at the Rosehill Theatre and took to the stage drunk. Lindsay took a trip to the hospital, Bowie slept in an armchair, and Natasha was left sobbing in her room. The next morning the sorry party returned to London. Lindsay was broken-hearted, and the affair was over. But their moment in history was about to come.
Five year later in 1972, Bowie was struggling again. “Ziggy Stardust, it wasn’t him,” Lindsay said on Australian TV in 1977. Bowie asked Lindsay to stage his concert at The Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park. Roxy Music supported, and Lindsay played the “Starman” dangling from a set made of scaffolding and ladders from his show Flowers. With Lindsay’s company performing on-stage in spider web costumes by Korniloff, the trio was reunited. The show caused a sensation: “[It] was pretty amazing,” said Brian Eno in 2016. “But David Bowie had a secret weapon: Lindsay Kemp was, is, and always has been extraordinary.”
“In terms of gender-fluidity, Lindsay presented a character onstage that was neither male, female, gay or straight,” David Meyer recalls. “But when David Bowie took that, you could say exactly the same thing. He produced this kind of androgynous figure onstage and that kind of androgyny was new, certainly for pop stars. And from then it carried on, the New Romantics, they were all Lindsay’s children.”
It was Lindsay’s courage at being out and proud onstage and in public when no one else dared to that inspired Bowie to give an interview to Melody Maker in 1972 where he came out as gay. “I always thought David Bowie saying he was gay is perhaps the only good example of a really good lie,” says Meyer. “He may have been bisexual or experimental, but he was not [solely] gay, but he said so and in doing so empowered and released hundreds of people all over England.”
Those star-studded years in the ’60s and early ’70s were only the beginning of Lindsay’s vast repertoire and fame. His 1977 production Cruel Garden for Ballet Rambert, made in collaboration with Christopher Bruce and Carlos Miranda, went on to be known as Rambert’s greatest work. His partnership with Oscar-winning costume designer, Sandy Powell, brought more acclaim. In the ’90s, following the AIDS crisis that claimed the lives of five of his company members, he took his Japan-inspired masterpiece, Onnagata, back to the source, where the Imperial Princess of Japan threw a party for him at her Tokyo Palace. In 2008, at the age of 70, he returned to Japan to perform his last major production, Elizabeth I: The Last Dance.
This past two years, Lindsay was touring Italy and Spain with his repertory show Kemp Dances, and working every day with his ballerina, Daniela Maccari. She said his last day on Earth was “perfect.” He had been rehearsing, laughing and joking, eating celebratory pizza, planning a new tour and was about to carry on dictating his memoirs when fate intervened.
Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky is the director of the feature documentary, Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance, due for release in 2019. It was filmed over 10 years with Lindsay Kemp in Japan, Italy and the UK. Illustration: André Gottschalk