In the late 50’s, living in London and usually penniless, Kemp’s apprenticeship consisted of dancing with various small but ambitious dance groups, including the John Broome Dance Theatre (in 1954 he had studied with Broome in Bradford), the Hilde Holger Company and the Charles Weidman Company (on its visit to London). His unquenchable thirst for performing meant that he was enthusiastic about appearing in numerous short-lived shows of all kinds… learning by performing.
In 1960 he made his London West End debut in the chorus line of Terence Rattigan’s musical “Joie de Vivre” at the Queens Theatre. This was followed by a long provincial tour of “Oklahoma”, where he was an unlikely but eye-catching chorus cowboy. On returning to London, he teamed up with two female friends to form a cabaret act. They called themselves “The Trio Linzi” and did sophisticated song & dance and comedy numbers in clubs and variety theatres up and down the country, even once performing in a wrestling ring between one bout and another. In December 1961 the Trio left England for an adventurous ‘tour’ of clubs in France and Belgium.
Returning from the continent in 1962, Lindsay began forming his first dance theatre troupe, with talented friends… dancers, singers, musicians, designers and lighting designers (his first collaboration with John Spradbery, who would for years light nearly all his productions). Jack Birkett, later to become The Incredible Orlando, was also a member. Their first performances in London were at the Valerie Hovenden Theatre Club, off St Martin’s Lane, which would later become the Little Theatre. Lindsay created various pieces for this rather discontinuous company, christened The Lindsay Kemp Dance Mime Company. In 1963 the LKDMC performed at the Dublin Festival and in Cork, and in May 1964 played a prestigious season at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, with a show called ‘Illuminations’. With no funding and no permanence, this company was a struggle soon abandoned, but also an important first rehearsal for the future.
Although only 25, but never short on confidence, Kemp was beginning to find his feet as a teacher, for instance at the recently-opened Dance Centre in Covent Garden. Both as a performer and as a choreographer and creator he learned by doing… small shows, whether avant-garde or popular, clubs and strip-clubs, small parts in films, odd jobs of all kinds. In February 1966 he applied for a post teaching dance in Iceland. He managed to last 3 months of grim cold, dreaming of warmth and colour… and then decided to look for those things in Rome: at the end of April he and Jack Birkett flew there, invented the first of their many two-man shows, and performed it in the tiny Teatro Goldoni, near Piazza Navona.
After an adventuresome three month Roman Spring that included street performances in the Spoleto Festival, bit parts in films and numerous unfulfilled projects, Lindsay was offered a role in Frank Hauser’s production of ‘Volpone’ at the Garrick Theatre: he accepted instantly and took the first flight to London. A provincial tour and a West End run… this was progress! New doors were opening, new creative relationships forming, and there was always the desire to create his own shows.
By 1967 his classes at the Dance Centre (dance, mime, improvisation, creative release) were becoming quite a draw. David Bowie too was drawn, and from doing classes was drawn further, into collaborating on the creation of a new show, ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’. Prepared in the last months of 1967 and first performed at the Oxford Playhouse at year’s end, this surreally untraditional evocation of traditional characters had songs composed and sung by Bowie, with additional music composed and played by Michael Garret. Bowie was Cloud, a balladeer, Jack Birkett was Harlequin and Lindsay was Pierrot, but the show also played on the tension between fictional roles and their real performers, confounding onstage and offstage. Performances in 1968 included a run at London’s Mercury Theatre in March. Material from this show featured strongly in “The Looking Glass Murders”, filmed for Scottish television (1970), and was later variously reworked in other shows, such as “The Turquoise Pantomime”. Bowie went down his road to stardom, but a few years later, in 1972, he asked Lindsay to direct – and perform in – his legendary Ziggy Stardust concerts at the Rainbow Theatre in London… a milestone in Rock performance.
Meanwhile, back to August 1967: at one of the Fringe events in the Edinburgh Festival, in a slot called ‘Clowns Hour’, at a 10 a.m. morning performance in the Young Women’s Christian Association, Lindsay peeped through the curtain before his performance and realised that Marcel Marceau was one of the dozen people waiting for the show to start. He had 10 minutes to recover from the shock and hastily rearrange the show in order to eliminate one or two numbers “excessively similar” to certain Marceau pieces. But afterwards Marceau was extremely complimentary and encouraging, and offered to give him private lessons. And a few weeks later, during Marceau’s London season, Marceau gave him a series of free private lessons in his suite at the Savoy Hotel, also coming to the Dance Centre in order to watch his classes (“very exciting, but not a mime class”, he rightly commented). They remained rather unlikely friends thereafter.
From 1968 Lindsay Kemp found himself spending an increasing amount of time in Edinburgh, whose fledgling Festival and Fringe plus all-year offshoots offered a wealth of opportunities. Summers of love and flowers, and also waves of fierce experimentalism and renewal… Jerome Savary, The Living Theatre, Arts Laboratory avant-garde Happenings: Kemp’s classical and modern dance vocabularies remained alive and kicking, but in a very different stylistic climate and on very different stages.
Through the summer of 1969, he gathered a young and different kind of company in Edinburgh to rehearse a new show based on a Jean Genet novel, and rented a derelict factory in order to convert it into a performance space. These activities culminated in the first performances of the first version of “Flowers”, at the Edinburgh Combination in Victoria Terrace… wild, raw and volatile, but a first step on a historic road. Very freely adapted from Genet’s ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’, this work-in-progress production shortly afterwards travelled to York Arts Centre, Warwick University and, some time later, the Glasgow Citizen’s Close Theatre.
The first three years of the 1970s were packed with eventful creations and experience, mostly in Edinburgh… including new productions such as “Woyzeck” (1970), “Crimson Pantomime” (1972), “Flowers” and “Salomé” at the Traverse Theatre, an Arts Council tour of shocked Scottish cities with a revamped “Turquoise Pantomime” (1972), directing Genet’s “The Maids”, plus filming Ken Russel’s “Savage Messiah” and Robin Hardy’s cult-film-to-be, “The Wickerman”.
For late 1973 Kemp was planning and preparing to play Madame in his version of “The Maids”, at the Bush Theatre in London, but Genet’s agent refused to grant permission. The theatre was booked, so on impulse he decided to mount a new version of “Flowers”, in many ways very different from previous versions. The show opened on 2 January 1974 and… over the following months was swept on a mounting wave of acclaim from the Bush to the ICA to the Regent Theatre (the West End at last!) and over the ocean to Broadway. Lindsay would remain very much the same, but he and his company had finally taken wing for a very different dimension.