The Poet Of Gaudy Silence

Lindsay Kemp 1938-2018

That the performer and maverick choreographer Lindsay Kemp who died suddenly on 24th August was a precocious and different child should come as no great surprise. Born as a replacement for his deceased elder sister Norma who had been a talented dancer when she died from meningitis aged five, her future brother found no problem on taking on the mantle of her creativity, or her ghostly costumes. Always in search of an audience he would regularly stage shows for the neighbours with his friends. When he joined forces with the son of a local undertaker, they discovered that tap dancing created fabulous acoustics when performed on the lids of the coffins. As a result of his father’s death in 1940, his ship “The Patroclus” had been sunk by a German torpedo, this tragedy entitled him to attend at the age of eight, Bearwood College in Wokingham, the Royal Navy School. His mother had hoped this might rid her only son of his eccentric ways, if anything his desire for self-expression flourished further and he was almost expelled for staging a late night performance in the dormitory as Salome, naked and festooned in rouge after conscripting much toilet roll for veils. It was a role he would successfully reprise in later life with a live boa constrictor for added dramatic value. Born in Birkenhead, and later a native of South Shields, he is proof that strange flowers blossom grow in unlikely and inhospitable climes

Aged 16 he returned North and enrolled at Bradford Art College. There he met a fellow classmate called David Hockney. It was his advice that Kemp should point his toes in the direction of London and its various dance schools. There was one major barrier though. National Service. Kemp joined the RAF, but was as an unorthodox recruit as he had been a schoolboy. He staged various camp, the pun is entirely intentional, productions and sought to escape the confines by wearing eyeliner and bangles and declaring himself, it was then illegal and totally unacceptable, homosexual. Kemp discovered sex whilst there, and his brazen proclamation had the desired consequence. He found a place, albeit short-lived at the Ballet Rambert, he was removed for being undisciplined, shared a flat with the future actor and director Stephen Berkoff, ending up in the chorus line of various London shows. It was at the Edinburgh Festival that he impressed the mime artist Marcel Marceau who took him on as a pupil. Soon the novice would become a teacher with startlingly influential results.

Kemp in 1967 was performing at a theatre in London's St. Martin's Lane when a young, terribly disillusioned singer called David Bowie appeared in the audience. Kemp had been using a song from his debut album When I Live My Dream as part of his show. Bowie, who was about to give up on his musical ambitions introduced himself afterwards. A sexual and creative relationship flourished which resulted in a touring show Pierrot In Turquoise which was filmed in 1970 as The Poet Of Gaudy Silence. Kemp was an emotionally charged pierrot whilst Bowie aloft a ladder performed his songs. The highly fevered atmosphere transferred into real life dramatics when Kemp discovered Bowie in bed with the production's female designer. His response was to slash his wrists under the influence of a lot of whiskey, he later admitted, it had been a rather half-hearted attempt. The tour continued with him using his bloodied costumes, the blood stains adding an extra frisson to the proceedings. I remember him enquiring if some ephemera I'd found relating to that time held anything relating to Bowie and himself. I said there was only one yellowed clipping to which he responded with his inimitable drawl: 

“If it relates to me and Mr Bowie then it will be very yellow indeed!”

Bowie and he would later re-unite when he asked Kemp to collaborate on the staging of two Ziggy Stardust shows at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park in 1972. It proved a pivotal moment in the fusing of theatrics and rock, paving the way for Bowie's next incarnation of Aladdin Sane. The perfect collision of decadence and camp. Bowie, ever the thieving magpie copiously borrowed from the ideas of his former lover and teacher. Elton John even declared the proceedings “too camp” but Kemp's glittering genie was out of the bottle and in the guise of Bowie was attracting a mass audience. Kemp too was prolific in the 70s. He formed his own troupe, and tackled the likes of Jean Genet's Our Lady Of The Flowers, a hedonistic mix of glitter, nudity and debauchery though his productions offended the dance critics, who found him showy and iconoclastic. theatre scribes proved much kinder. He also found himself in demand as an actor. In 1973 he appeared in Anthony Shaffer's cult chiller The Wicker Man and also featured in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane and Jubilee as well as an unlikely appearance in The Stud starring Joan Collins, and the more likely Savage Messiah by Ken Russell. This provided him with a considerable amount of money which he frittered away on extravagant living, expensive productions and the inevitable booze and cocaine. His productions were always a visual treat, a trip into another world be sourcing texts and influences as diverse as Lorca and William Walton, touring Europe, the US & Japan.

By the mid-70s a shy retiring girl turned up at one of his teaching classes. With Kemp's persistent encouragement she blossomed. He reflected recently in a Q&A session at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall in late June this year that he had little idea of what she wanted to achieve, but that she was good. Returning home one evening he found a album pushed under his door, it was her debut The Kick Inside and the track “Moving” was dedicated to him. The girl in question was  Kate Bush who would later collaborate with him in her film The Line, The Cross & The Curve in 1993, the time of her album The Red Shoes. She sent him an enormous bouquet of flowers at his recent Manchester performance. He was momentarily speechless. Like many great English eccentrics, Quentin Crisp springs languidly to mind, Kemp found much greater acceptance for his showmanship and maverick spirit, abroad. He initially settled in Spain, but eventually made his home in a crumbling convent in Umbria where he was feted as the undoubted legend, albeit  the kind and modest one, he had become. He toyed with opera, his first sojourn Rossini's The Barber Of Seville was criticised for being too slavish to the composer's.

In recent years he had found a fruitful and meaningful collaboration with the English singer-songwriter Tim Arnold. The video for the song “Change” is as touching, and unintentional a legacy that one could hope for. The wonderful face of Kemp emotes starkly the haunting lyric. For a man who brought a silent eloquence to every nod and gesture, it is as brave as it bold and unadorned, and is akin to an animated photograph. His performance to the song “What Love Would Want” at The Bridgewater Hall was a sweeping arc of sublime simplicity. A small man filling a large stage with elongated arms and a tremendous ease of movement for someone who'd just turned 80. The lighting was superb, and the song superlative. Few of those there could have envisaged that we were witnessing his final performance in the land of his birth. After the show as he sat signing posters and photographs he looked like an ageless androgyne in white face paint and Japanese pyjamas with his trademark red dots at the edges of his eyes. It was magical and he was serene. Even his hands were painted white. As I was about to leave he beckoned me over. “You aren't going anywhere without a kiss!” I duly obliged as did he whispering that we'd stay in touch...

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