The Wylde Interview: Lindsay Kemp
DANCER, ACTOR, CHOREOGRAPHER, ICON. PERFORMANCE LEGEND LINDSAY KEMP TRULY LIVED HIS 80 YEARS ON EARTH AND PASSED ON HIS GENIUS TO FELLOW ICONS DAVID BOWIE AND KATE BUSH, AMONG OTHERS. IN HIS LAST INTERVIEW BEFORE HIS DEATH IN AUGUST, HE TOLD PIPPA BROOKS ABOUT SEX, SOHO, SHOPLIFTING… AND BEING A SEABIRD
PORTRAITS BY SARAH LEE
“Lindsay Kemp has died!”
I’d been aimlessly flicking around on my phone on the tube, when I received this text from my editor. The tears took me by surprise, since I’d only met Lindsay once. Since then, though, we’d spoken on the phone and by email several times, and I had grown very fond of him.
When one of our queer pioneers – especially one as fabulously influential and irreplaceable as Kemp – leaves us, it feels like a star going out. Such a loss. We are so lucky Lindsay Kemp thought he was “God’s gift to ballet”. That fearless belief and determination to find and show himself to the world was indefatigable, and he was literally dancing until the day he died last August, at 80, after rehearsing with his company in Livorno, Italy.
Most of Kemp’s obituaries named David Bowie and Kate Bush in their first breath. Of course, he was an enormous influence on both, but it’s important to remember that, pre-Bowie and Bush, Kemp was wowing – and dividing – audiences from London to New York with his own dance company, provocatively blending mime, theatre, camp and glitter to flamboyant excess. His signature style culminated in his pantomime Flowers, which was the artist’s response to Jean Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers. This audacious mix of high and low culture had Kemp playing Divine, a transvestite transcending gender in a world of criminals. The production was bold, to say the least, and didn’t shy away from his sexuality; incorporating nudity, blood and flagrant eroticism, and, of course, caught the eye of Bowie and led to their momentous collaboration on the Ziggy Stardust tour.
Photographer Sarah Lee and I spent the most delightful day in Kemp’s company last May, visiting his fairly squalid Airbnb accommodation in Holborn, at the top of a tiny stairwell thatstank of cooked cabbage. He was flying through London, having performed at Annabel’s Club the night before and was on his way to teach in Guildford the following day.
The portraits for this piece had taken longer than expected, because the flat, which Kemp assured us had looked palatial on the website, was hilariously awful. Having given his all in the performance the previous evening, the idea of venturing out into the sunshine for a portrait was a no-go, so poor Sarah was making depressingly little go a very long way indeed, in terms of spots where she could set up lights with the least depressing result. Throughout, Kemp’s wit, skill as a raconteur and gentle teasing of my “bag of tat” – my props! – had us endlessly cackling, helplessly giggling at our less-than-ideal situation. At one point, I was balancing on the footboard of the bed, holding lights, Sarah had kicked off her shoes and was lurching towards Kemp, who was in coquettish pose in the far corner, propped up ineffectually on limp pillows…
Lee: “I wouldn’t normally trample on someone’s bed!”
Kemp: “I would, given half a chance!”
And, once again, we’d all collapse into fits and try to gather ourselves sufficiently to get a usable frame. But the point is, we were having so much fun it didn’t really matter that there were only about two square metres of suitable wall and wonky furniture, which offered no beauty or support. Also, whatever the surroundings, we knew we were in the hands of a pro, and, as the pictures show, he would light up any room, palatial or sordid.
When I left him at the end of our interview that evening, lazily curled in the corner of the revolting sofa in his kimono, fat joint in elegant hand, eyes half shut, it was reluctantly. He was visibly exhausted but enjoying himself too much to stop, so I’d decided to call it a night before he passed out.
Me: “I think that’s enough for tonight because you’ve had a long day, but we can meet again…”
Kemp: “Well I would prefer, because you’ve only got a bit of it!”
What follows is the “bit” of Lindsay Kemp’s life that I managed to get; he danced around, even in conversation, gliding into the past with ease, recalling naughty Soho strip joints, then a fast-forward jeté to first laying eyes on David Bowie. It was a ride, and I’m so grateful I got to know him, even a little.
Wylde: So, Lindsay, why are you in London, since you live in Italy?
Lindsay Kemp: I was invited to participate in a dance-and-music event by the composer Mimi Xu. She really wanted me, and I was flattered, always am, to be asked. They said it was going to be at the Serpentine Gallery but then it ended up being in Annabel’s [slightly disappointed face].
What was the piece?
It was inspired by Beckett and I was wearing a bowler hat, a suit, a nose and bare feet. I’d take the clothes off one by one, symbolising, before one’s death, abandoning the trappings and so on…. weird in a nightclub, you know [chuckling]! It was about decline, the last part of the cycle. You know: birth, life, love, death, all that stuff, which is the kind of thing I do. I’m quite famous for my death scenes, so I was quite confident about that. But in three minutes, to go through the whole Marcel Marceau cycle of life and death... And then I die and I’m reborn and all of the dancers swirl together. Never again… I was dead! One of the dancers flew in specially from Berlin an hour before the show was due to start, because she wanted to work with me. She was brilliant, I have to say, she went on fearlessly. It was quite extraordinary. Nothing clinked throughout my entire performance!
And what kind of crowd was it?
Weird crowd; there were a lot of ladies in feather boas and it’s so expensive, so opulent, it’s not the old Annabel’s from the Sixties; it’s all been done up. One felt ill amongst such crass luxury. Awkward moments. Of course, like the old days, we had to change in the kitchen and the gentlemen’s toilets, and so on. But it did make me sick, the money… the carpets.
I imagine you get a lot of requests to bring your fabulous. How do you choose your projects?
I get asked to do these things and I do say: “If the money’s right.” I didn’t expect to have to ask to be paid for yesterday. I said: “Oh yes, that was very nice… and the fee?” They go silent, and then they say: “Oh well, it’s not a commercial venture…” I can’t just fly into London, stay in this dump, you know, for £120 a night! And it’s painful and stressful doing these performances. I’m glad I did it, but I certainly wouldn’t do it again. Last year I did a production of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann. [Kemp drifts away, singing the music: “La, da da da dee da…” and his hands make beautiful shapes around him… I loved it!]
How did you choose to live in Livorno, Italy?
That is an Italian’s question! They say: “Why Livorno?” [pulling a face.] Well, I performed there over a period of many years in the Seventies, in the theatre, and I’d collected a big and very affectionate audience, and then I was invited to direct several operas there. I liked the town so much; it’s by the sea, and I was born by the sea… I need to be by the sea. In the harbour are all these tall boats, like clippers, which I adore. I’ve inherited it from my family, who have always been sailors, so it enhances my passion. They say: “But after New York..?” But I feel comfortable, it’s more normal, for want of a better word. It’s not theatrical, but it’s beautiful. Much of it was destroyed in the War, of course, but Pisa’s just down the road. Livorno isn’t very cultured at all, unfortunately, but it does have beautiful buildings and beautiful people and a beautiful spirit. It’s always been a very open city. There are no ghettos; the arms of Livorno, since the Medieval times, have always been open, very wide. So I was welcomed like a refugee should be welcomed. It’s home, it feels like going home. I don’t know if I’m going to be there forever. I’m a bird, a seabird; I inherited my wings from my father. There’s a legend that says that drowned sailors are metamorphosed into seabirds, and there are plenty of those flying around my house and relaxing on my balcony. I feel I can hear my father out there, encouraging me. I feel his presence very strongly.
Do you enjoy being in London again? You used to live on Bateman Street in Soho, didn’t you?
Yes, but it’s sad what has happened to Soho. That’s the only word for it. Well, it’s not the only word – it’s scandalous. Criminal. For so long, Soho kept its spirit, its naughtiness and its poetry. I lived there for years and worked in the strip clubs. When we were looking for somewhere to stay for the show last night, there was a category: “NEW Soho”, and I don’t want to know New Soho. I want Old Soho, THE Soho. Oh god, I loved it, from the late Fifties – when I was a schoolboy, of course [laughing] – it was the danger, it was thrilling. Things that are thrilling are usually bordering on the dangerous, like love and passion. It should feel like: “What am I getting myself into now..?”
Do any of your old friends still live around here?
I actually had some friends from the Fifties days visit me this afternoon. We toured together in the old days in [the musical] Oklahoma!. We were talking about our folly, our naughtiness! We were never unhappy then. We were remembering when we were cowboys in the chorus in Oklahoma! and toured six weeks in Edinburgh, six weeks in Glasgow and six weeks somewhere else. One night, there was a really handsome guy in the front row. Our dresser brought me a little note from him; he wanted to meet the following night. Some of the queens were envious, but my friends, the cowboys, said: “We’ll have to make you very pretty tomorrow night. We’ll put your hair up in rollers; keep your Stetson on!” Anyway, my first entrance was jumping over a fence, you know: “Hi!” And I lost my hat, didn’t I?! Of course I brought the house down; there was this cowboy in the Glasgow Empire, his head full of rollers! The actor playing the lead wasn’t terribly happy, he didn’t know why everyone was laughing![Starts singing:] “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City. They gone about as far as they can go!” Please excuse me, my voice is going…
I won’t keep you much longer…
No, no, it’s just that I should avoid singing… for both our sakes!
Your chorus days sound fun. I’ve read about your audition for Sadler’s Wells at 16; you were fabulously precocious and confident!
One was certainly more confident then than I am now. I auditioned at the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. I mean, I leapt around the room doing numerous pirouettes, God knows what they looked like, I’d never had a lesson! I’d learned it all from this book called The Ballet-Lover’s Pocket-Book! There were diagrams showing you how to hold your arms, and so on. I was very mortified when I received a letter from the school that said: “Dear Master Kemp, Thank you so much for coming to the audition at Sadler’s Wells School on Friday last. Unfortunately, the committee and I regret to tell you that we find you physically and emotionally unsuitable for a career as a dancer.” Of course, I didn’t listen and I applied to the Rambert School, and I went to Rada. Many of the schools said the same thing. I was very much applauded at boarding school, a kind of Royal Merchant Navy school, like a marine establishment. My mother hoped I might go into the navy, like my father. A lot of wise mothers think the theatre’s not a very suitable career for their child because it’s “overcrowded”; the expression we used in those days. We would go to the Repertory Theatre in Bradford on a Monday night; two for the price of one. Afterwards, we’d go to Collinson’s Tea Rooms, where there was a string quartet playing. The actors were all there, with their coats thrown across their shoulders, making their tea last for as long as they could. And my mother would say: “But have you seen their shoes?” And they were all very down at heel. She always feared that for me. Even when they were doing period shows like Quality Street, they were wearing their own shoes with silver paper buckles on them. You had to provide your own clothes and shoes in those days.
What was your next move after being turned down by Sadler’s Wells?
Well, I didn’t want to go into the navy. I was just determined to pursue my dream and to go onto the stage, somehow. For the time being, having left school with my suitcase in my hand, I went to Bradford, where my mother was living, and I had to get a job. So I got a job in a department store, very top drawer: Brown, Muff & Co [giving me a look that says: “I know!”). They thought I was very arty, I was sent up a lot there, but I was popular enough, and they paid for me to go to evening art classes. They put me in the furniture department to help with the room settings, which I enjoyed immensely. They sent me to evening classes in interior design and painting and drawing and, of course, that’s where I met David Hockney, who always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do.I did get a job in the local theatre, kind of amateur-professional. I wore an improvised Oberon costume to my audition, with tulle and Sellotape and stuck-on leaves. My make-up was copied from Robert Helpmann, whose photographs I’d seen as Oberon opposite Vivien Leigh. The three men who were auditioning me were surprised to see me coming out of the lavatory into the foyer, where the audition was held, in full drag! With a wind-up gramophone! [Setting the scene for me, Kemp launches, word-perfect, into Oberon’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:]
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
I’ll never forget those three men’s faces; their jaws went like that..! I thought that to audition, you had to dress the part. People audition for me like that, you know, they come in with a rose between their teeth!”
You did get to the Ballet Rambert School, eventually, and started to meet the characters who would, in many cases, be lifelong collaborators. Like Jack Birkett (also known as The Incredible Orlando), who was an extraordinary performer, and who, like you, performed in the films of Derek Jarman. And most extraordinary of all is the fact that most of the work we know him for was performed when he was completely blind.
We met when we were both students. We danced in the piazzas in Italy and rattled our tins for change. We were great foils for each other, throughout the whole Arts Lab movement during the Sixties, with our happenings. He began bumping into things, and I remember I told him: “They’ve got contact lenses now”, and I took him to an optician in London. He walked straight into the plate-glass door and nearly knocked himself out. In the end he was totally blind and an incredible, magnetic performer. His eyes were purely decorative. They had quite an effect on people. We were very unlucky to lose him a few years ago. He was a wonderful Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
And of course you were both in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. What did the Punk movement mean to you?
I mean, I had friends like Jordan and so forth, but I wasn’t terribly attracted to the whole scene. I mean, where was the beauty? And then the New Romantics were pretty ghastly as well! There were certain songs like God Save the Queen, which I quite enjoyed, and the music for Jubilee. I liked their story; the murder, the deaths in the Chelsea Hotel, the drama of it all… but it all seemed a bit grubby for my taste.
One of my favourite moments in Jubilee is Jordan dancing around the fire in her tutu – such a beautiful scene! And she can really dance!
Oh yes, she was great, she was terrific, love Jordan. We were great friends. There are quite a lot of pictures of us together, rather lascivious!
And of course, the Seventies were the Bowie years. You chose to play When I Live My Dream at the start of your Clowns show because you were besotted with the song from Bowie’s debut album. He came backstage… and the rest is history? That came at such an important point in Bowie’s trajectory.
[Bowie photographer] Mick Rock says that I gave him the direction, I kind of fed his, well, his passions. There was a bit of that as well [chuckling]. It was just a little show, called Clowns, with my good friend Orlando, who I mentioned before. I’d been given the record by a mutual friend, and I fell in love with the voice and the poetry and the sentiment of the song. Then, opening my dressing-room door I saw Archangel Gabriel and fell on my knees [more chuckling]. And then of course he went on to perform the songs in my next production, Pierrot in Turquoise, which take the first album’s feel [breaking into Threepenny Pierrot]. I had a great passion for the musical as well as the Japanese theatre, the Noh and the Kabuki, and I introduced him to those aesthetics. We looked at a lot of books and a lot of pictures. I had a lot of Japanese woodcuts, many of which I inherited from my mother and father. I’d never been there, dammit; he got there before me, of course, and became a star! I mean, I got there eventually. I got there about 10 years after him, but he’d already met up with the Kabuki actor Tamasaburo and had a relationship and learned a lot about make-up. Before that, I taught him a lot about costume and make-up and the importance of looking the part, of looking marvellous on the stage, not just the voice. I taught him showmanship. And then, of course, he asked me to stage Ziggy Stardust after that.
Pierrot in Turquoise was the first time Bowie wore make-up! He never looked back really, did he? Do you have a favourite Bowie song?
When I Live My Dream, of course! Certainly, all the songs from Ziggy Stardust are the ones that meant, and still mean, a lot to me. I still suffer when I listen to those songs, I mean, music transports us more than anything else, doesn’t it? I teach my students, as I taught Bowie, to close the eyes, to drink the music, abandon yourself. When I listen to that music, it takes me straight back to our bed as well as to the stage at the Rainbow Theatre, and it brings back the tears and the heartbreak. Sadness is easy to remember, for some reason. On your death bed you should be focusing on the happiest moments of your life… but tragedy seems to be easier.
And, of course, Kate Bush dedicated her song Moving to you after attending your classes, and you appeared in her own homage to the movie The Red Shoes…
She was taking lessons with me at the Dance Centre, and I got home and there was a record shoved under the door and a little note saying: “Thank you for everything, this is for you”. I admire her a lot.
Dancing was all you ever wanted, wasn’t it, literally from birth?
From my birth, yes. I mean, I was born dancing. They now call it St Vitus’s dance; sound and light and music could bring it on. So the first months of my life, I spent in a darkened room, with no sound and no light. Silence. When I began to recover from that… wow, honey! The lights were turned on and the gramophone was wound and I was [impersonating Carmen Miranda]: “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi, I like you very much!” I was considered to be something of an infant prodigy. As was my little sister, Nora, who had died of meningitis at only five years old,seven years before I was born. I was a replacement for this child, and I certainly inherited her talent; my mother used to say she could sing, she could dance, she could do anything. I inherited her little kimonos that my father brought back from China and Japan, and her little fans. So the kimono and the fan have always been a very big part of my aesthetic.
But it can’t have been easy, when you were young, to find yourself, with everyone wanting you to go in to the military and so forth… to flourish?
Of course, there was a long time when I wasn’t myself. It takes a long time. In our youth, we don’t know ourselves; it was really through experimenting with LSD that I found my voice. I took it regularly during the Sixties and Seventies, but I didn’t do it to relax. It wasn’t recreational. I took it for work. I mean, I don’t have hobbies or anything, everything goes into my work. So it helped me with my work and helped me find myself. Until you find your voice, you don’t find yourself. It was through the Soho days in the Sixties, and also thanks to Timothy Leary and his friends that I found myself. I don’t pretend on the stage, either. I’m not happy at all; I don’t sleep, if it hasn’t been real. I’m not a very good actor, I don’t have a lot of confidence in pretending to be something that I’m not. Even though I had a lot of practice at it in my youth, pretending that I had a different background, spoke with a posh voice, I was a schoolboy who invented a whole family, where we had country houses and everything, to impress. I try always to please; you probably know that. I wanted to please Sarah and you, but not to impress any more.
When you perform, I feel it’s all about your eyes and your hands….
Carmen Miranda’s hands and Robert Helpmann’s eyes! When I saw the mad shoemaker in The Red Shoes, I thought: “Oh God, I’ve gotta be that! This is my world!” I mean, I knew before The Red Shoes, of course, before that, in the cinema: Busby Berkeley and the costume pictures with Bette Davis. The swashbuckling, the galleons, the pirates, men in tights! That was a world I wanted to belong to.
When or where have you been happiest?
I’m very happy now because I enjoy talking to you, and I enjoy talking about myself. But, of course, I’m not always happy now. It’s very difficult to be happy these days, when we live in a very unhappy world. Maybe one needs to be a little bit selfish to be happy. I couldn’t be happy walking to Annabel’s last night, when there were so many hungry people lying in the wet, in the rain. And of course, Israel and Palestine and Syria… I mean, it’s all too horrible to be happy. I suppose I’m happy-sad, you know. I prefer to be happy but, you know, I’m not really happy unless I’m in love, that’s when I’m really happy. That’s when I have my energy. I’m kind of between love at the moment… I find it less pleasurable not to have a date or someone to kind of dream about; dream, dream, dream, like teenagers. When I do fall in love, or something similar, or I have a crush, which does for now until the real thing comes along… then, of course, I’m more nimble; my dancing is better, I’m younger! Love slows down my ageing a lot! But I really, really miss being in love. But then, you never know: tomorrow is another day!
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: LINDSAY KEMP
What is the first thing you do in the morning?
Who was your first love?
My first love was a Cherokee Indian, who I met when I was a schoolboy aged 16 in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His name was Little Running Buck. He waited for me until I left school.
Has anyone caused you to feel starstruck?
Do you have a signature dish?
Favourite outfit ever worn on or off stage?
My beautiful Elizabeth I dresses by Sandy Powell.
Who is, or was, your role model?
How many times a day do you look in the mirror?
Being a dancer, quite frequently.
Favourite place in the world?
Was there anything that was a turning point, in terms of inspiration for your life path?
There was the ninety-minutes of The Red Shoes for many dancers of my generation. Also for Kate Bush and Scorsese. But for me, I’d never seen ballet. I mean, I’ve always done my own version. But seeing Robert Helpmann’s eyes, those ostrich eyes that hypnotise. That, and Carmen Miranda, who was also my heroine, with her eyes. I used to imitate her!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Weren’t you a life model with Quentin Crisp?
That was during the Sixties, about ’64. That was when I first met him. He was very prissy in those days, very bony. Later on, we became acquaintances, I liked him a lot. I liked his book [The Naked Civil Servant], not to mention the film with John Hurt.
Do you collect anything?
Favourite recreational drug?
Best advice you’ve ever been given?
What is your earliest memory?
My sailor father, lifting me above his head.
Have you ever been arrested? [I have never had such a detailed reply to this question!]
Yes, of course, on several occasions. I’ve been arrested for importuning, once or twice; in those days it meant hanging around in public lavatories. My aunt, my mother’s sister, bailed me out. Shoplifting; coming back from Billingham, where I’d been doing a production of Pickwick. I was very depressed; I’d left the production and I was in Piccadilly, walking past the Scotch House, and I thought I’d cheer myself up and buy myself a scarf, and I waited a long time in the queue and then the queen said: “No, the other counter!” I went to the other counter: it happened again, so I let it drop in my bag; it was the most fabulous feeling! I walked out of the shop, I felt elated, and my depression had gone. So I thought: “I’ll pop in again!” and I was looking at a rail of sweaters, one in a colour they used to call Burnt Orange, and I thought: “That’s nice, I’ll do what I heard they do: I’ll put my jumper over the top”, and the floor manager with his little half-moon glasses, came up and said: “Can I help you?” I said: “I’m interested in a sweater.” And he lifted the label, which was hanging out of my jumper and said: “Like this one, sir?” I was rumbled! Marched through the shop, taken to Marlborough Street police station. I was playing the innocent, and then all my mates, the doormen, the strippers and whores were coming through, going: “Alright, Lindsay, love, what are you in for now?!”
Then, drugs, of course! How could I forget that! The night before we left for our first Australian tour, we were having a little party, about 20 of us, and there was a raid. The cops arrived. I thought a couple of the guys, friends-of-friends, looked a bit weird in kaftans with those boots that didn’t really go, and I should’ve clicked, but then suddenly this guy with his beard on a bit of elastic said: “OK, this is a bust!’ I saw one guy put a bag of grass under the rug, just in case they didn’t find anything! Of course, everyone threw their dope out of the window and then ran out to retrieve it when they’d gone. I was in Marlborough Court the next day for allowing the house to be used for drugs, and there were a few other incidents in airports and railway stations where I’ve been nabbed… So there have been a few [laughing], seeing as you asked..!
Are you nostalgic? Do you wish people wouldn’t always ask you about the past?
I do get a bit fed up of talking about Bowie, although, of course, I know that is where a lot of my audience has come from, and the publicity, but I was never really a Bowie fan. Lover, but not really a fan, which is why after we split up I didn’t listen to a lot of his work.
What is your favourite meal?
Stewed eels and mash.
Where are you happiest?
When on tour.
What is the quality you most admire in people?