I can’t deny I’m really sad to hear about the death of Lindsay Kemp today. I have just a small handful of true ‘heroes’ but he has been one of them since I was a teenager. I first saw him in Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane when it was shown on Channel 4 (late at night enough to not offend the delicate sensibilities of the viewing public) and it was these kinds of films that inspired me to rent the VHS tape of his Midsummer Night’s Dream performance (still – tragically – the only one of his full-length productions that’s been professionally shot, I believe but even that was only released once in the Nineties and never again). What’s essentially a wordless dance adaptation of a Shakespeare play may seem an unlikely rental for a teenage gorehound but man, it blew my mind. His visual style – especially from that play – remains something that’s stuck in my mind and pretty much anything that looks even remotely like it is definitely, to this day, still going to grab my attention. It’s how I wish everything looked.
He’s best known in pop culture for being the guy who taught Kate Bush and David Bowie how to… well… it depends where you read it but he taught them anything between how to dance and how to do mime to how to create their entire aesthetic. Either way, there’s little question that his influence is all over anything Seventies and a bit artsy, fey and/or glam but it’s diluted/modified Kemp rather than the full effect.
Seeing the full Kemp effect is tricky now given the scarcity of recorded performances but footage of him and his Company at work is still exhilarating and like nothing else ever was or will be. I would have probably have little to no appreciation of dance as an artistic medium if it wasn’t for Kemp first showing it to me at its most extreme. His work can express so much emotion and be beautiful and vulnerable to the point where it’s hard to bear, then switch to the most violent or savage interpretation of ‘dance’ you can imagine (his hypnotic Genet-inspired play Flowers, straddles both styles at their most heightened).
As a visual artist, performer and choreographer, his talent was just stratospheric – which explains why other talents like Bowie and Bush both idolised him – but he also had an eye for recognising it others and bringing the best out of them. The Lindsay Kemp Company featured, among many others, amazing performers like Suzi Skelton, The incredible Orlando and Michael Matou. He surrounded himself with nothing but the best (and I would probably have little idea who any of those people were had I not come to them via Kemp).
His film career is sadly short and sweet but considering he appeared in just a handful, he worked with Ken Russell, Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes as well as appearing in The Wicker Man (my favourite film), that’s just about – in ratio terms – the greatest film career you could have. And he’s a scene-stealer in all of them. Who can ever forget The Landlord’s Daughter or the raw, lewd, crazed sexuality of his dance in Valentino?
It’s frustrating so little remains of Kemp in motion. There are videos in existence of varying quality but there’s almost nothing predating the late-2000s that’s in anything above VHS grade quality of him onstage. And even after that, you just get snippets of things. While it arguably increases a certain sense of mystique around Kemp – whose aura was always somewhat magical – it breaks my heart that this makes it so much harder for future generations to find out who he was and the astonishing things he was capable of.
On a personal note, I’m sad I never got to meet him when I had a chance a couple of years ago. I walked past him on the street outside a rather disorganised Kate Bush related art exhibition at the height of sticky London summer, and he looked like he was a bit stressed, and I was completely starstruck anyway. It would make no difference to anything but y’know, now he’s dead I do feel some regret that I never got to tell him what an impact his work had on me and the way I think and the way I look at art, theatre, film and the world (although really, can you imagine how pretentious and crazed I would’ve sounded if I’d blurted all that? Probably best I didn’t).
The kind of fame he dreamed of may never have quite happened but his vision permeates pop culture even now and those who know… just know. It’s a cliché to say that the world is a little less brighter now but really, Lindsay Kemp was one of the brightest of all the stars to me and, I know, to many others who knew his work. He said “We must always dance like it’s our last dance” so it’s good to know that whatever that last dance of his was, he danced it like he knew it. He was 80 when he died and still dancing in front of audiences as recently as a month or so ago. He lived a full life in art – as art, even – and few get to achieve that.
R.I.P. Lindsay Kemp