Lindsay Kemp: The Man Who Taught Bowie His Moves
Mick Brown, Crawdaddy!, September 1974
LONDON ó Lindsey Kemp doesnít converse. He orates. Words spill out, like wine from a jug, in a long, liquid flow; pictures spring to life, shaped by his large, mobile, mouth, illuminated by the movements of his hands, the arching of an eyebrow, the shrug of his shoulders.
He is a story-teller.
Most of his tales are about himself, cast in the role of a hero or fool, stumbling from adversity to triumph, victim of chance and master of circumstance. All of his stories are, like himself, outrageous; fact so embroidered as to resemble fiction. Life, but larger than life. On stage he is silent. The stories are essentially the same, but words give way to gestures which are slow, deliberate, precise ó unfolding to reveal the most commonplace action imbued with an uncommon grace and meaning.
Kemp has been described as Britainís leading exponent of mime, but there are few enough mime artists performing in Britain to render the compliment meaningless. Suffice it to say, he is good.
David Bowie thought so too, and spent several years studying under Kemp before emerging in androgynous splendor in the guise of Ziggy Stardust. "I taught David to free his body," says Kemp, smiling wickedly.
"Even before meeting, David and I had felt the need to work together. Iíd identified myself with his songs, and heíd seen my performances and identified himself with my songs. I was singing the songs of my life with my body; he was singing the songs of his life very fabulously with his voice, and we reckoned that by putting the two together the audience couldnít help but be enthralled. In other words, one large gin is very nice, but two large gins are even nicer."
As a consequence of the Bowie phenomenon, Kemp has been much sought after by aspirant rock stars from America confident he can repeat the trick. Kemp, however is too busy being famous himself to bother. He recently made his London West End debut in Flowers, Kempís own adaptation of Jean Genetís Our Lady Of The Flowers, it is a story in movement and music of prisonersí fantasies which is, by turns, hilarious, erotic and steamily oppressive. Kemp plays "Our Lady".
The British press hated it, but it has exceeded even Kempís expectations at the box office, transforming him from relative obscurity into a cult figure, with the sort of following in Londonís gay community which used to be the prerogative of the likes of Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. "I like being famous," he admits. "I feel a desperate need for the crowds and to be loved; and Iím not just satisfied with being loved by the few. I really want to be adored, admired, and craved for by as many lovers as I can get." He plans to swell his following even more by bringing Flowers to New York in the near future.
He can hardly be blamed for letting success go to his head. For more years than he cares to remember he has been eking out an existence in low-profile night clubs and the occasional arts-laboratory or workshop. On one occasion he worked as a female impersonator in a North of England working menís club, coming on between a comic and a stripper; on another, he was reduced to walking the streets of Brussels, penniless after being turned away from a club in which he was scheduled to perform, carrying a sign which announced "I am a famous English entertainer who has lost all his money. Please give generously."
His father was a naval officer who has drowned in action. "I was sent to follow in his footsteps at some dreadful college for the sons of medical men. Of course, Iíve always been very fond of the service, but actually joining it was out of the question. I wanted to dance and sing and swing through circus hoops even more than I wanted to sail the seven seas. Now, by being a mime, I can be a sailor whenever I choose to be ó and I can be the sea too...
"It was a very rough school and I wasnít a very rough person, so I found that the only way I could survive was to make the other boys laugh. I was like Scheherazade, telling them the most amazing stories night after night to ensure my survival. I amazed and dazzled them ó like a bright light trained in wild dogsí eyes."
On leaving school, he became conscious, he says, of life being a battle against the forces of mediocrity, and, like Baudelaire, came to the conclusion that only by achieving greatness would he win. He resolved, therefore, to be great. But how? He drifted into the theatre, initially as an actor. "It was a dismal failure," he recalls ruefully, "because I could never convince anyone that I was Hamlet or whoever I was supposed to be. I find I donít much care for theatre where everybody pretends to be things. Iím not into playing roles."
He came, eventually, to mime ó an art where he could play himself ó and spent several years in Edinburgh, performing in one-man shows, winning praise and encouragement from Marcel Marceau. He even flirted briefly with films, playing "Corkey," patron to the sculpture Henri Breshka, in Ken Russellís Savage Messiah. Kemp was uncomfortable in the role. "I was desperately unhappy throughout the film. Russell was very frightening because he wanted me to be quick quick all the time, without allowing me any time for spontaneity. I like my story to unfold; I always take my time, because I love to make the audience wait, and the audience loves that.
"Ken Russell would have Orson Welles days, and heíd have Kazan days and Fellini days ó and then heíd have his own days, which were a little less memorable. But I donít think heíd counted on an actor in his film who would have Norma Schearer days, and Moira Schearer days, and Betty Grable days. Our personalities conflicted completely because we were both so into being who we felt like that day it was impossible."
Kemp has since concentrated exclusively on mime; as a teacher, leading his own company in Flowers, or making the occasional appearance with the Turquoise Pantomine, a revue in which he appears with his long-time friend Jack Birkett, "The Incredible Orlando," a blind man of muscular build with a completely shaven head. Birkett is led discretely on stage, dressed in black fishnet stockings and a pink waspie, to belt out ĎI Want A Maní in the best neo-decadent tradition. Kemp, more restrained, pulls invisible wires from his ears and wipes non-existent dogshit from his satin shoes.
"My performance is exactly the same as my life," he says," except that itís even more fabulous because it has to be noticed from further back. My make-up, for instance: people talk about the actor wearing his "mask," but thereís no mask; itís merely an exaggeration of what already exists. I paint in more hair; itís not painting in hair that doesnít exist ó just painting in a bit more. My lips merely become redder than usual. My skin is very white anyway; I simply make it whiter.
"Most people think my life is very theatrical anyway because itís played to the hilt. I like to do everything fully. I drink until Iím drunk. I eat until Iím full, frequently until Iím sick. I donít fancy people, I fall in love with them. Leave out hate ó it doesnít come into my work at all. Iím terribly into intoxication ó thatís the only thing that counts..."
David Bowie was one person Kemp fell in love with. They worked together for several years, playing small theaters and colleges throughout England. When Bowie eventually re-surfaced into the mainstream of rock music it was in a persona significantly influenced by Kemp. "I taught him to exaggerate with his body a well as his voice, and the importance of looking as well as sounding beautiful. Ever since working with me heís practiced that, and in each performance he does his movements are more exquisite.
"The mime uses gestures to convey his inner beauty; itís his natural way of doing it, and the only way he can do it marvelously. Bowie does that with his voice, so his gestures arenít truly those of a mime. But he has learned to free his body, and he now dances constantly. This is what I endeavor to teach everyone who studies with me ó to free what is already there. Everybody has that dove flying around inside them, and to let it fly is a fabulous experience. Thatís why Isadora Duncan danced, and Pavlova danced ó because they loved the moment when they actually became swans, not just impersonating them as actors do. Pavlova actually became a swan, and had a great time while she was up there. And so am I..."
© Mick Brown, 1974