Lindsay Kemp: How the lost boy of dance found his feet

Lindsay Kemp is in reflective mode, back in London to revisit old companions in Dreamdances, and to oversee a revival of The Parades Gone By. Nadine Meisner finds herself beguiled by the Peter Pan of the theatrical world
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The Independent Culture

Lindsay Kemp is sitting in a room full of yak hair. He's arrived in London to oversee rehearsals of The Parades Gone By, his wild parody of Hollywood's golden age, created for Rambert Ballet in 1975 and revived after 23 years. But there's also the opening of Dreamdances at the Peacock Theatre to think of, and its succession of Kempian archetypes – Salome, Nijinsky, Salieri and others. Salieri needs a certain shade of grey hair and the Royal National Theatre's wig department can provide it.

I poke my head round the door and see a middle-sized, 62-year-old man without much hair, fake or real. The pixie face is recognizable from his cameo roles, such as Divine in Flowers, whose slow-motion walk and doll-like, slanted posture makes her a near-replica of the bride in Cruel Garden, Rambert's 1975 Kemp-Christopher Bruce collaboration. He smiles broadly, professing himself pleased to meet me at last. With horrible cynicism, I wonder if he's being genuine. If he's not, he's doing a flawless job. He says he has read my articles. My mind anxiously shuffles through my opinions (possibly in print) of his productions. Nijinsky? Nijinsky, Nijinsky.... Can't remember. Cinderella? (Didn't like.) But A Midsummer Night's Dream? (Yes! Good raucous fun.) And Façade? (Highly accomplished.) From my pre-criticising days I also recall the comically bad-taste Snow White in Parades Gone By, singing on crutches, "Some Day My Prince Will Come...". And Flowers, searing in its suffocating homosexual atmosphere and anguished delirium.

Flowers, based on the life and work of Jean Genet, was Kemp's first hit or, as he puts it, "the show that availed me to the rest of the world". Contrary to the decadent phantasmagoria of his productions, Kemp is not camp. He's just mildly theatrical, voice rolling sonorously, then suddenly quietening into tremulous solemnity. Flowers came after several years of appearances in working men's clubs, numbers between striptease acts and wrestling bouts. He was "still terribly young – about 27". Flowers started on the Edinburgh Fringe, came to London, went to Broadway and then to Spain, where he stayed, before moving to Italy. Why abandon England? Because he found beautiful places, like the small Umbrian town Todi where he has a house. "I'm not in exile," he insists. He loves British audiences and was loved by most of them – except those who were shocked by the homosexuality, or certain critics irritated by the slow motion and baroque ripeness.

Anyway, Flowers led to Rambert's invitation to create a piece (The Parades Gone By). This was a reversal for Kemp, a Rambert-school eject. "I've been kicked out of so many schools and pubs," he says, referring also to his drinking days. As a 16-year-old boarder at naval college, he had auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. They posted their verdict to him: "We consider you both temperamentally and physically unsuited to the career of a dancer." Can you imagine a more crushing verdict? Physically, maybe he didn't fit the classical stereotype. But "temperamentally"? How wrong could you be?

"I thought Rambert would find room for me, even with my body," he slaps a meaty leg-calf. After art college in Bradford (David Hockney was a contemporary), he was accepted into the Rambert school in 1956. "Doesn't that surprise you?" he asks with a mock-youthful glint. "It's supposed to." He loved Rambert and the Russian history it came from, and that love marked him for ever. "I always wanted to be a Rambert dancer. It was the first company I saw as a child, at the same time as The Red Shoes." He met a wonderful crowd of fellow students. "We were so enthusiastic. Even during lunchtime we would be doing a barre in Kensington Gardens on the backs of the benches." And then the pain, the bewildered pain – "When they kicked me out without explanation."

He didn't last long as a dancer with London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) either. Years later, LFB's co-founder Anton Dolin played Herod, opposite Kemp in his titular role Salome, where the tables were turned, courtesy of the script. "His knees would creak as he knelt," Kemp remembers. "Then he had to cry 'Dance for me Salome! [Wailing tone.] I will give you anything if you will dance!'" Kemp's idol and model was Robert Helpmann, who, like Kemp, was a man of total theatre, unable to fit usual moulds. "I'd try to get the Helpmann look," he lowers his forehead and affects a gleaming gaze. "I'd sit at breakfast and my mother would say, 'What's the matter with your eyes?'"

The dead and legendary populate his mind like guardian angels. "They gave me direction and hope because they all had these incredible struggles." He was born in Birkenhead: "I'd never mention that in olden days. I used to invent, like Marlon Brando, more exotic places to be born in." His father was a sailor, killed when Lindsay was two, and Lindsay was sent to naval college in Reading, as family tradition dictated. Passing through London, he would visit Cyril Beaumont's ballet bookshop in Charing Cross Road. "I'd take the books back and read them in bed with my torch, when the other boys would be reading salacious paperbacks. So I'd be reading about Isadora [Duncan] and jumping out of bed and enchanting the boys [ecstatic dancing demonstration], the way Scheherazade's storytelling did." This allowed him to survive the boarding-school jungle.

His mother started him on this theatrical trip when he was a little boy, encouraging him to dress up and paint his face "like mother and daughter". When he reached the age of eight or nine, she worried. "She realised I was totally obsessed with singing and dancing and make-believe. So I was sent away to school to be a man. They'd say to me, 'What will you do when you grow up?' And I thought – never! If this is what the grown-up world is, without trust or imagination or colour."

He has remained a Peter Pan, working as choreographer, director, mime, visual artist. He has redesigned Parades Gone By but otherwise made only a few minor changes. He has been urging Rambert's dancers to project more, as in "the great days, when dancers were like actors". Contrary to current dance zeitgeist, The Parades Gone By is unapologetic entertainment. "I've constantly to remind dancers and choreographers that we are entertainers. I've always wanted audiences to leave the theatre feeling lighter than when they arrived."

From the start, he was an enthusiastic teacher. In the 1960s, he gave classes at the newly opened Dance Centre in Covent Garden. The many future celebrities included David Bowie. He and Kemp toured a small show, Pierrot in Turquoise, round the British Isles. "Turquoise was the Buddhist symbol for everlastingness and at that time Bowie was planning on becoming a Buddhist monk." Kemp rolls his eyes. "I saved him from that." He was in love with Bowie and there was "a drama" and they fell out for a few years. "Then he asked me to do Ziggy Stardust. He was about to become one of the world's greatest rock'n'roll stars. So I'm credited with putting glam rock on the map."

The self-aggrandisement – the Isadora, Nijinsky and me – springs from insecurity. "Gabriel Garcia Marquez said I was the world's greatest silent poet. I have to keep reminding myself because of the moments of doubt."

Being in the theatre is clearly both pleasure and pain for Kemp. He's sick with stage fright about the Peacock season, which features just himself and two long-time associates, Nuria Moreno and Marco Berriel. Although he will revisit the usual suspects, old companions such as Nijinsky, all of the material in Dreamdances is new, arranged "like eight haikus" in a revue format. It represents a return to the simplicity of the early Pierrot in Turquoise days, making it easier to slot in between the opera productions that occupy him abroad. He's off tomorrow to work on Purcell's Fairy Queen, for a production in Spain. Where exactly? He can't remember, but it's next year's European City of Culture. By now I am utterly captivated. This is terrible for a supposedly impartial critic. I'm ready to follow this charming, disarming, funny man anywhere.

Dreamdances, Peacock Theatre, London, 020-7863 8222, 30 January to 9 February; The Parades Gone By, toured by Rambert Dance Company from 18 April

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