INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo NOVEMBER 2018 - by Paul Trynka
Mime, choreographer and teacher to David Bowie and Kate Bush, Lindsay Kemp left us in August.
If any single figure embodied the eclecticism, eccentricity and sheer bravery of the '60s and '70s London scene it would have to be Lindsay Kemp, the choreographer, mime artist and actor, who died in Livorno, Italy, on August 25, aged eighty. Celebrated within the rock world as a formative influence on David Bowie and Kate Bush, both of whom trained at his Covent Garden studio in Floral Street, Kemp also played a crucial role in Derek Jarman's oeuvre, appearing in both Sebastiane and Jubilee, famously played the bar-tender in The Wicker Man, and oversaw many significant productions with his own companies, including 1974's Flowers, a controversial interpretation of Jean Genet's Notre Dame Des Fleurs.
Lindsay was an endlessly charming, ebullient figure, and a fascinating story-teller. Many of his recollections, of how he grew up in South Shields, and was nearly expelled from public school for dancing as Salomé in a costume fashioned from toilet paper, seemed the stuff of myth. But they were essentially true. He was proud of his many accomplishments, but quite possibly underplayed one of his most magisterial qualities: bravery.
Kemp was already busy on the London dance and university circuit when he met Bowie around October 1967, after his agents handed him a copy of Bowie's Deram album. Kemp incorporated When I Live My Dream into his mime performance, which David attended a few days later. The pair met at Kemp's flat on Bateman Street, and chatted until breakfast time, Lindsay told me, about "everything I loved: music hall, silent movies, Oriental and ritualist theatre, kabuki, Genet, the Theatre Of The Absurd. Then we'd delight each other with our impersonations of Laurel and Hardy."
It was no surprise, of course, that with the possible exception of Laurel and Hardy, Bowie helped spread all Kemp's obsessions to mainstream culture. Kemp said the pair were briefly lovers; they collaborated in a touring show, Pierrot In Turquoise, although Kemp professed himself heartbroken when David disappeared with costume designer Natasha Kornilof. In 1972, Bowie recruited Kemp for a chaotic, inspired show at the Rainbow, which helped launch the singer's role as a cross-cultural phenomenon. It's also surely the case that when Bowie relaunched himself with his famous "I'm gay, and always have been" Melody Maker interview, he was influenced by the courageously out choreographer.
The dancer remained relentlessly busy; Flowers, in 1974, was a succès de scandale. When he teamed up with Jarman in 1976, it seemed the mainstream had finally caught up with him. After Kemp taught Kate Bush mime in the mid-'70s, she would write The Kick Inside's Moving for him; he later appeared in her 1994 film The Line, The Cross & The Curve.
In recent years, he based himself in Todi, a beautiful Umbrian town. He was rehearsing when he collapsed. Kemp remained proud of how he taught Bowie, "by my example, to be audacious. You've got to turn heads." You did, Lindsay, you did.
Kemp's most controversial work, Flowers, is available on DVD, via Kemp's own website. Like many ballets, a film version can't quite capture the whole spectacle, but it does full justice to his sheer presence. Of the Bowie works, The Looking Glass Murders (on YouTube), a reworking of their Pierrot show, is a charming period piece. Jarman's Jubilee remains a classic, but perhaps better still is The Wicker Man, in which Kemp's knowing, somehow sleazy pub landlord makes a vital contribution to the overall surreal menace.