Lindsay Kemp is arguably the most significant living figure in modern dance.
From appearances in cult films The Wicker Man and Jubilee, to helping create the visual identities of Kate Bush and David Bowie, he has been a recurrent figure in the avant-garde for six decades.
May 3, 1938 was the day the world was graced by Lindsay Kemp’s arrival – he lived with his mother in Birkenhead and it was there he took his first steps not in walking, but dancing: “I would dance on the kitchen table almost from birth. From the moment I learned to walk, I danced. I have always found dancing much more pleasurable than walking.”
A passion for performance ran in the Kemp family; his mother loved the theatre, and his sailor father would bring little kimonos for his sister as a gift from Japan.
Lindsay inherited the clothes after his sister’s passing at the age of just five, but for the young boy it was much more than just fashion: “I did not only inherit the kimonos, I also inherited the gestures that went with the costumes, the spirit of the Japanese dance.”
He later went on to perform a sell-out show in Japan, with the country proving to be one of his greatest, career-long influences.His mother had always hoped he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a sailor.
Though Mrs Kemp was delighted with his theatrical escapades, she soon realised that the stage had become an absolute obsession for her son.
Lessons at school were neglected and she was left with no choice but to send him to a “hideous” boarding school.
But performing didn’t stop for Lindsay. It was at the Royal Merchant Navy School that he learned his technique as a dancer: how to hypnotise and mesmerise with his gestures.
Whilst other boys in the dormitory would read improper books, Lindsay would read about Ida Rubenstein and how she danced Cleopatra.
“She was swathed in yards of marvelously-coloured silk designed by [Leon] Bakst. I didn’t have that of course, I only had toilet paper. The boys wrapped me up in toilet paper and my face was heavily made up with burned cork , with red on my cheeks, the red ochre paint from the walls of the dormitory. Slowly the boys unravelled me, they unwrapped me from the toilet paper just to the moment where I appeared nude and the housemaster arrived; I was threatened to be expelled. Not for the lasciviousness of my dance, but for the waste of school property using the toilet paper!”
After his adventures at boarding school, Lindsay went on to audition at the Sadler’s Wells School, only to be deemed both ‘temperamentally and physically unsuited’ to a career as a dancer by the board. “Of course I didn’t listen,” he says.
By this time Kemp was at a constant war with his mother when it came to his future – he joined the Air Force out of desperation, where he also befriended Jack Birkett, another performer who became known as The Incredible Orlando.
“Jack told me how to get out of the forces. He said: ‘Get out of the forces, dear’. How do I get out of it? And he said ‘put some kajal around your eyes, wear a couple of Indian bracelets and tell them that you are a queer, dear’.”
The ruse worked and Kemp got himself out of the military and into the Rambert school. “A lot of the boys did it,” he recalls. “It was a sort of a ploy.”
However, shortly after commencing his studies, Lindsay got kicked out without any explanation. “I never fit in, certainly not in a ballet school. I always had my own way of dancing. Even though I always wanted to become a ballet dancer, I think my dance was a bit different. It was closer to Isadora Duncan; I have always been a very free spirit and that reflected in my dancing, my work, my art and my life.”
Despite leaving the School, the new director of the Rambert Company John Chesworth invited Kemp to make his own ballet for the company, which was called The Parades Gone By.
Chesworth’s instinct proved right and the ballet proved to the most successful piece in the history of the company.
A period of repeated success followed; a collaboration with Christopher Bruce on the “very marvellous ballet” Cruel Garden, which was inspired by the life and death of García Lorca toured around the world, then Flowers, a drama based on the life of Jean Genet and his show Our Lady of the Flowers.
One of his great friends David Bowie was set to star as the protagonist in Flowers, however that didn’t end up happening, much to Lindsay’s regret.
While touring, Kemp was also responsible for productions of Salome, inspired by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and the school of decadence, Alice in Wonderland and many more.
“I just wanted to be myself and do the things that gave me pleasure, while being entertaining,” he says. “I wanted to be free and encourage and help other people to feel liberated as well – that’s my philosophy and to be free is the most important thing in life; freedom and love. It is difficult to be happy if you’re not free.”
“I always encourage others to love. To love is so pleasurable, it is a return to youthfulness. Being in love is being young again. I really put myself out to be in love,” Kemp told Artefact.
“Love’s always been a game, play it how I may. What am I to say,” he sings. “Even when I was a little child I ask my mother ‘why are all songs about love?’ She said ‘love makes the world go round.’ Now I understand what she meant.”
It was his love for theatre that inspired him to become what he is today and made it easy for him to transform himself from Lindsay Kemp to his on-stage character, by going through the essential process of ‘trance’: “I say to my students: no trance, no dance,” he affirms.
“I enter the process of the trance and become whichever characters I am playing, their personalities take over me. I arrive in my dressing room very early and I sit in front of my mirror, alone, meditating on the character. I play music to abandon myself to that music and I paint what I see in the mirror.
“I look at myself until I see the character’s reflection and I colour it in. Through that two-hour process of sitting in the dressing room I am getting into my trance. When I leave my dressing room I am already in a trance and I am already in the character; I enter another world.
“Music helps transport me to other places and other times, very often to the orient. Sometimes I play Tchaikovsky, and sometimes I play Top of The Pops music, so long as I arrive in a semi-trance.”
Singing, dancing and designing costumes have all been part of Kemp’s career, but teaching has also been an integral part of what he does, and continues to be one of his greatest pleasures.
Over the years he influenced many successful artists most notably Kate Bush and David Bowie.
In Bowie’s own words, meeting Kemp in the late 1960s was “when (my) interest in image really blossomed.”
At only 19 years of age and with two failed album releases already under his belt, Bowie’s career had stalled.
It was Lindsay’s final night of his show Clowns when David came to see him in his dressing room backstage – for Lindsay, it was love at first sight: “He stood before me like the Archangel Gabriel. He expressed his desire to learn from me and so I invited him to my flat the following day. We had a lot to talk about.”
An awestruck Bowie was introduced to Lindsay’s bohemian world, a far cry from his upbringing in suburban Bromley.
“I taught him to dance. I taught him to express himself through his body and to communicate through his body. I taught him the importance of look and he followed a lot of my examples. The way that I wore my extravagant clothes for example, and just my bohemian life – I introduced him to a very free life.”
Working with Lindsay enabled Bowie to find much more within himself: “He was always a snazzy dresser, but in those days everyone dressed like the Beatles. He began to become more of himself; to become flamboyant. I taught him the importance of flamboyance in order to capture attention,” Kemp recalled.
“He was great to be around and he was great to direct. He was like a sponge; he absorbed absolutely everything! I only had to bring it [his talent] out of him but it didn’t take long because it was all there already! Everything he did influenced me, but he didn’t give me directions like I gave to him. But I was his student in many things, I could tell you. We shared many of the same influences like the music of Jacques Brel and cabaret.”
Bowie always had a fascination with theatre and he slowly started to incorporate many of Lindsay’s ideas in his music, particularly ideas about avant-garde theatre.
The song Jean Genie was inspired by Bowie’s attraction to Jean Genet, who he discovered through Lindsay.
But Bowie really found himself when he was performing in Ziggy Stardust: “For years he became the character that he was playing, which wasn’t really himself at all,” says Kemp. “When Ziggy was laid to rest, David really became himself again.”
Like Lindsay, Bowie started off with mime. He would mime as a warm up before other artists like Marc Bolan and other rock and roll bands. “But his mime was terrible, he had no talent as a mime at all. He loved it but he couldn’t perform it! Just like I loved singing but I can’t sing!”
David and Lindsay had a brief affair and spent a lot of time together. They shared a flat and spent a lot of time working on his music.
“David was very lazy around the house. He was concentrating on his music when he was with me. When he wasn’t with me God knows what he was concentrating on!”
“After performances we always went to the pub. We used to hurry the finale so we could get to the pub before closing time. We would then walk back to the flat to get some fish and chips together. We were always very, very poor together back then and we couldn’t afford anything else at that time. And times haven’t changed much, my God. We used to survive on fish and chips!”
Kemp talks like he is reciting a newly-imagined poem; words spill out of his mouth like a flow of water, each word carefully chosen to create an extraordinary story: he even manages to make death sound alive.
“Just a couple of weeks ago I was playing one of my solo pieces called Traviata about Violetta, when she was dying from consumption.
“I was suffering from terrible flu and hideous bronchitis and at the time in the piece when Violetta was coughing blood, I began to cough uncontrollably! It was then that I felt very close to death and I thought; this wouldn’t be a bad place to go. I was nicely dressed with clean knickers, all while wearing a crinoline!”
Other intimations of death appear in the conversation: he mentions a projected collaboration with Rudolf Nureyev, thwarted when the legendary ballet dancer passed away: “A lot of people are leaving us, it’s not fair, they are all popping their clogs.”
“But just thinking about them makes me feel closer to them than in life, and certainly more obtainable. I didn’t see Bowie for many years but now that he’s passed over, we’re close. I feel close again. For me there are no tears because I still very much feel his presence.”
All these anecdotes provide a true insight into Kemp’s extravagant, bohemian world.
But it does make one wonder, what is one day in such a visionary individual’s life really like?
“Life itself is a show; the day is utterly unpredictable. I am always working and I never stop,” Kemp reveals, before launching into another quote. “Isadora Duncan said: ‘Never rest, never rust’. The days are often joyful, but I don’t socialise at all.”
He recalls his time spent socialising back in London with Bowie: “I remember watching a bit of the World Cup together with David on our flickering black and white TV, it was the year that England won the World Cup and we soon got fed up, neither of us were football fans. There was such a buzz made out of England winning the World Cup but we were much more interested in each other. We didn’t celebrate the win; we celebrated by turning it off!”
Nowadays Lindsay spends his life working and teaching. He tends to visit very few theatrical performances (they easily bore him). He thinks artists should perform with the pleasure and enlightenment of the audience at the forefront of their minds.
“I miss so much of what the theatre once was. It’s not like that anymore, it’s boring. Theatre has lost its purpose the purpose of art is to lift sprits, very often my spirits aren’t lifted at all by what they’re doing.”
“An artist is never content,” he continues, warming to his theme. “We are always questioning what we have done and trying to get it better. Contentment is not for an artist.”
This is why Lindsay refers to his artistry as ‘works in progress’: he always continues to re-write his pieces and enjoys the process of re-writing, re-visiting, re-making and re-creating his favourite scenes.
All we can do now is wait until he is back in the UK and witness his art unfold on the stages of London.
You can see Lindsay Kemp appear live in the UK for the first time in 15 years at the Ace Hotel London to launch his new exhibition titled The London Drawings – the launch will feature a live drawing event, Q&A and publication of a limited edition artzine.
Experience Lindsay in conversation with Marc Almond on his life and work with David Bowie, hosted by Nicholas Pegg, author of The Complete David Bowie. The evening will feature a rare screening of The Looking Glass Murders (1970) and exclusive footage from Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance, the forthcoming feature documentary by Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky.
Pinto-Duschinsky is an almuna of UAL, having graduated in fine arts. She was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2013 and has collaborated with Kate Reid. She has been working with Lindsay for eight years and is now filming Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance.
Featured image courtesy of Lindsay Kemp