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Obituary: Lindsay Kemp – dancer, actor, teacher, mime artist, choreographer and mentor to David Bowie

Lindsay Kemp, who has died at the age of 80, was a maverick figure. His combination of charisma, eclecticism and a uniquely idiosyncratic approach to choreography transformed British dance and took it into the mainstream of pop music and film.

Much of Kemp’s work refused to be easily pigeonholed, gleefully driven instead by a magpie-like compulsion to borrow and steal from influences outside the norms of British ballet and contemporary dance.

The result was something fluorescent and foreign, lent added glamour by Kemp’s signature flamboyance and shot through with the unsettling stillness of mime – a discipline Kemp had learned at the feet of Marcel Marceau – and an unabashed sexuality that relished its shock value.

For Kemp, performance was as much about style as substance. Above all, its primary function was to provoke and shock. His creative credo seemed to announce itself fully formed, declaring early in his career that his ambition was to “restore to the theatre the glamour of the Folies Bergeres, the danger of the circus, the sexuality of rock’n’roll and the ritual of death.”

That incendiary combination proved problematic to critics in the UK (his reception in the rest of Europe was noticeably more approving), nonplussed by his associations with the emerging rock music icon David Bowie and pop chanteuse Kate Bush, and with left-field film-makers Ken Russell and Derek Jarman.

Born in Birkenhead, he moved with his mother to her native South Shields when he was two, after his merchant seaman father was killed in a torpedo attack during the war. Later moving to Bradford, he took lessons at the city’s Sunshine School of Dancing and auditioned for Sadler’s Wells aged 15, only to be rejected as “unsuited to the dancer’s career”.

Kemp bided his time by studying fine art at the Bradford College of Art, where fellow student David Hockney took him to see his first ballet. Reinvigorated, he moved to London in 1957 where he dedicated himself to dance in earnest, taking lessons from Marie Rambert and his first mime classes with his greatest influence, Marceau.

He made his West End debut in the chorus for the short-lived run of Terence Rattigan’s musical Joie de Vivre at the Queen’s Theatre in 1960 and had a cameo as the Player Queen in BBC Television’s 1963 anniversary staging of Hamlet in Elsinore (with Christopher Plummer as the Dane), before striking out on his own in 1964 with the formation of his eponymous dance mime company.

Early productions at Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, quickly attracted attention, such as Flowers, his controversial 1968 reworking of Jean Genet that saturated religious iconography with the homoerotic tropes that would become his trademark.

Flowers was subsequently seen in London at the Bush Theatre and Roundhouse and introduced Kemp’s work to international audiences in New York and Sydney.

More outraged headlines followed in the first half of the 1970s, not least when Kemp was enlisted by Bowie to choreograph the stage concerts for his own breakthrough album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Provocatively androgynous, Bowie and Kemp were kindred spirits and, for a time, lovers, the singer having joined Kemp’s touring company in 1967 and later appearing in the title role of Pierrot in Turquoise. Bowie paid tribute to his mentor by featuring him in the promotional video for his 1972 hit single John, I’m Only Dancing.

Experimentation was key to Kemp’s work throughout the rest of the decade. It saw his first forays into film in iconoclast Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), incongruously as a pub landlord in Robin Hardy’s cult-attracting The Wicker Man (1973) and in Jarman’s controversial, Latin-dialogue Sebastiane (1976) and punk rock-accented Jubilee (1977).

His change of fortune was capped by a commission, the first of several, from Ballet Rambert, the cinematic parody The Parade’s Gone By in 1975. The following year brought the premiere of his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, with Kemp himself the titular seductress, white-faced and bedecked in feathers in a striking fusion of burlesque and Japanese Noh theatre.

Cruel Garden, his 1977 collaboration with Christopher Bruce and Rambert first seen at the Roundhouse, fused sex, sun and violence in an evocative tribute to the Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Seduced by Spain and subsequently Italy, the 1980s were spent in Barcelona and Rome, where his involvement with opera began, an interest that acquired increasing prominence in later years, most recently with a staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (for which he also designed the set and costumes) at Livorno in Tuscany in 2016.

Work (and a more conducive critical response overseas) meant appearances in the UK became increasingly less frequent, although he was seen alongside Miranda Richardson in Kate Bush’s 1993 film The Line, the Cross and the Curve. He returned to London to work with the Ballet Rambert Company and long-time collaborators Nuria Moreno and Marco Barriel in 2002 on Dreamdances – which included excerpts from Flowers and Salome – at Sadler’s Wells and a touring revival of The Parade’s Gone By.

Despite often crippling back pain, he remained active as a dancer and performer until shortly before his death, making his last UK appearance in June this year at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in a multimedia project with singer-songwriter Tim Arnold.

In a modest assessment of his career, he told The Stage in 2002: “There isn’t such a thing as ‘Kemp technique’. I have been lucky to have always worked with extremely talented people.”

Lindsay Kemp was born on May 3, 1938 and died on August 24 aged 80.

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