Lindsay Kemp was born on May 3rd 1938, near Liverpool. His father, Norman Kemp, was a naval officer who had met and married Marie Gilmour in South Shields, on England’s north-eastern coast.
Norman and Marie’s first child had been a daughter named Norma, who died from meningitis at the age of five. Lindsay was conceived very much to take his sister’s place for her inconsolable mother. Along with her costumes and the miniature Japanese kimonos and fans her father had brought back from the Orient for her, he also inherited his sister’s talent for dancing and entertaining. But two and a half years later tragedy struck again: Norman’s ship was struck by a German torpedo and he was not among the survivors (sailors, the sea as freedom and death, the angel and the albatross… many recurring symbols in Lindsay Kemp’s work are rooted in this defining event).
Marie returned to her parents in South Shields with her son and it was there that at the age of four he began his first dancing lessons with Miss Pat Hardy. Marie was a theatre lover, and frequently took him to the theatre and cinema. The annual Christmas Pantomimes with their magical transformations and dancing fairies, made a deep impression on him and after seeing them he would immediately perform elaborate and enthusiastic imitations. Soon he began organising shows in the back yard of the terraced house in Talbot Road, marshalling a cast of neighbouring children, directing them, dying fabrics to make costumes and playing the leading roles… as he would continue to do in different contexts for the rest of his career.
The six-year old Lindsay entertained neighbours in the local Air-raid shelter, and he sometimes visited convalescing troops in Harton Hospital, performing a sailor’s hornpipe and a Scottish dance in a kilt made by his grandmother, as well as doing impressions of Carmen Miranda and Marlene Dietrich. Sometimes he would take trips across the river Tyne pretending to himself that he was going to give a theatrical performance, his home-made crepe-paper costumes packed into his gas mask case.
In September 1948, aged 10, Lindsay was sent to boarding school at the Royal Merchant Navy School, now Bearwood College, near Reading in Berkshire. He hated the military atmosphere, but Marie still hoped that he might pursue a naval career: “I didn’t want Lindsay to go on the stage, I wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps”, she later said in many an interview. Lindsay survived school by entertaining the boys and putting on shows in the dormitory after lights out, one of them involving him playing all the roles in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“, and another featuring him as Salomé, draped from head to foot in toilet paper. Caught red-handed by the headmaster during his dance of the seven veils, he was nearly expelled (mainly on account of wasting toilet paper) but the headmaster relented and instead confiscated his make-up and ballet shoes for the rest of term.
But nothing could stifle his passion for the magical otherworlds of theatre and dance. He read all the dance and theatre reviews in the newspapers, and searched out books and photos on dance, adulating his heroes. During the holidays he would visit Cyril Beaumont’s Ballet Book Shop in Charing Cross Road, using saved up pocket money to purchase “The Ballet Lover’s Pocket Book” and various dance periodicals, including “Dance and Dancers”, edited by Peter Williams, who was later to become a great admirer and close friend. And whenever he could, he went to the theatre. In 1949 Marie took him to see Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” at the llford Gaumont cinema, starring Moira Shearer, Robert Helpman and Leonide Massine… an epiphany of dance mythology that overwhelmingly confirmed his determination to pursue the long road that would led him to the stage.
In 1954, shortly before leaving school, Lindsay Kemp auditioned for The Sadlers Wells Ballet School (now the Royal Ballet School), but he was soon informed in a letter from the principal, Ursula Morton, that both she and her board found him to be “physically and temperamentally unsuited to a career as a dancer”. Undeterred, he did everything possible to find a way into the theatre, both as a spectator and as a performer, both at home in Bradford and on trips to London. He took dance and theatre classes, applied for jobs, and made his professional stage debut in Bradford as The Boy in “Six Characters in search of an Author”. In London he auditioned for the Ballet Rambert School, and to his delight was accepted and offered a scholarship, on condition that he first do his military service. He rushed to join the RAF, where he was assigned to train as a medical attendant. Before long, of course, he was taking part in RAF cabarets and shows. When on leave, he took classes at the Rambert School, where he first met Jack Birkett, who would later become his stage partner for more than 20 years, as The Incredible Orlando.
After about 6 months, impatient to conclude his adventure in the Air Force, Kemp adopted an oft-used shortcut: he informed the Medical Officer that he was homosexual. This gained him a brief stay in a military psychiatric hospital, followed by discharge from service. It was Spring 1956, he was 18, and he had no doubt about his next destination: London, Notting Hill Gate, and the Mercury Theatre, home to the Ballet Rambert School.
The Ballet Rambert Company at the time had a thrilling repertoire that included ballets by Antony Tudor, Walter Gore, John Cranko and Kenneth McMillan. Lindsay had gone to see the company perform various times and was in love with the company… his dreams seemed to be coming true. Marie Rambert was initially impressed with him, proclaiming that he had very good feet and that he reminded her of “little Walter” (Walter Gore).
The young Kemp’s happiness was short-lived: one day late in 1956, without any apparent reason Lindsay was asked to leave the school. Much later it emerged that this event was instigated by Rambert’s daughter Angela, the school’s principal, who disapproved of Lindsay. Years later, his reputation established, Lindsay would be invited back to the Ballet Rambert to create “The Parades Gone By”, a much repeated success for many years. This would be followed by a full-length commission from the company, leading to “Cruel Garden”, based on the life and death of Federico Garcia Lorca, a joyful collaboration with Christopher Bruce and the composer Carlos Miranda. And in 1974 Marie Rambert would come to see, and praise, “Flowers” in London’s West End.
After the Rambert School, Lindsay quickly looked elsewhere. Sigurd Leeder, former dancer and co-director with Kurt Joos of The Ballet Joos had recently opened a school for Modern Dance in London and he offered Lindsay free classes in the Laban technique and in dance composition. Lindsay also continued his studies with ex-Pavlova dancer Kathleen Crofton and with Anna Northcotte.
In 1959 he made his debut with London’s Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet), appearing as one of 20 guardsmen in Noel Coward and Jack Carter’s “London Morning”. One day, in the elevator going up to rehearsal, Lindsay overheard the company’s director Anton Dolin comment to Jack Carter about the young dancer in the lift with them… “they don’t get any prettier, do they?” Over 20 years later John Gilpin would appear as Oberon in Lindsay’s production of “A Midsummer Night Dream” and Dolin – playing Herod to Lindsay’s maddened Princess in the Kemp Company’s “Salomé” – would kneel and beg that he dance for him.