From the success of ‘Flowers’ in 1974, Lindsay Kemp’s career was transported into an international dimension, and for the next 20 years was very much inseparable from that of the story of the Lindsay Kemp Company. In the present context, a chronology of these successes (punctuated naturally by adventures, dramas and set-backs) must obviously be highly condensed.
In September 1974 Lindsay and the Company flew to New York, where ‘Flowers’ opened at the Biltmore Theatre on 7 October. It was astonishing that such an unorthodox show should appear On Broadway at that time, and it elicited extreme reactions, both positive and negative: feted by progressives and hated by conservatives (this would be a recurrent pattern for years to come), it hovered for 3 controversial weeks between success and closure, before having its run terminated at the end of the month. But there was still great interest, and Kemp and company were not ready to leave New York, and began a quest for funds to reopen Off Broadway. ‘Turquoise Pantomime’ was performed at the unaptly-named Truck and Warehouse Theater, while rehearsals progressed for a totally new version of ‘Salomé’. This opened at the tiny Fortune Theater in February 1975, with Kemp as Salomé, The Incredible Orlando as Herodias, David Meyer as Herod and David Haughton as Johakanaan. The production – of necessity visually minimalist, but emotionally extreme – was again acclaimed by the cultural elite but unable to draw a big enough general public to survive for long.
In the Spring the company returned to London, where preparations were made for a run of ‘Flowers’ at the Collegiate Theatre, while Kemp began the creation and then rehearsals of ‘The Parades Gone By’, a 40 minute work commissioned by Ballet Rambert. This ballet evoking the poetry of the silent cinema and the trauma of the coming of sound, played poignantly and comically with confusions between performer and role, and between memory, film and reality. It opened at the Roundhouse in June 1975, annoying the purists but delighting the public. In the same period, arrangements were being made for ‘Flowers’ to travel to Australia.
‘Australia’ was going to be a 6 week trip, but the degree of success was such that it turned into a year’s stay. ‘Flowers’ opened at the New Arts Theatre in Glebe, Sydney, in mid-November, and played to sold out houses until 20 March 1976. In January a new production ran for several weeks in tandem with ‘Flowers’, revealing a very different face of Kemp and Co.: ‘Mr. Punch’s Pantomime’. The macho Victorian puppet descendent of Pulcinella had long been a love of Lindsay’s (he had played the role in a street-theatre version in Glasgow ten years previously), and now an original adaptation marrying the Punch & Judy tradition with that of the English Christmas Pantomime was created, enjoyed as much by adults as by children.
During the last weeks of the run of ‘Flowers’, a follow-up production was in rehearsal: an entirely new and more lavish re-adaptation of ‘Salomé’, financed by Eric Dare, the local entrepreneur backing ‘Flowers’. Opening on 6 April, ‘Salomé’ ran successfully for a month, with the same performers in the principal roles as in New York, but a larger cast, and closed on 5 June in order to do a 3 week run of ‘Flowers’ in Melbourne before moving to the Adelaide Festival. There it found itself at the centre of a nationwide storm raised by a Christian extremist movement claiming that the show was blasphemous: the candlelight mass demonstrations outside the theatre were spectacular, and guaranteed full houses inside the theatre. Two weeks in Adelaide, ‘Flowers’ again in Melbourne, and then to Sydney for 2 weeks of “Clowns”, a reworking of ‘Turquoise Pantomime’ material with new additions. And then departure. In terms of arriving like something from outer space in a country hungry for theatrical innovation, and setting off a cultural chain reaction that would leave influences echoing long afterwards, the experience in Australia provided a vivid foretaste of the next decade and more of international touring.
On return to London came a season at the Roundhouse Theatre: the huge circular ex-industrial space was a perfect setting and had the right kind of public, and on 21 December Mr.Punch’s Pantomime inaugurated a 3 month season of the Company’s work in time for Christmas. ‘Flowers’ followed in January, and then the London premiere of ‘Salomé’, with the actor Vladek Sheybal playing Herod. The production was a resounding critical and commercial success, and the Roundhouse season marked the apogee of Kemp and his Company’s standing in London.
As a result, the dream of having a Lindsay Kemp Theatre beckoned, and through producers Brian Rix and Laurie Marsh the Broadway Theatre in Kilburn (some irony in the name, given the district) was refurbished to become home to “an unlimited season” for the Company. Ken Russel was due to play Herod, but changed his mind, and was replaced by Anton Dolin, bringing a bizarre echo of Diaghilev and extremely traditional ballet to the exotically decadent kingdom of this production, which inaugurated the theatre on Lindsay’s birthday, 3 May 1976. But the location was not ideal, and the box office was moderate. Lindsay Kemp’s Favourite Films were offered as a late-night bonus after the show, and then from early June ‘Clowns’ was performed at 11pm after Salomé (an ordeal for the performers), but the unlimited run, and the Lindsay Kemp Theatre, came to a close on 18 June.
Other projects were in full swing, including a German TV documentary, filming for Derek Farman’s ‘Jubilee’ and the preparation of a full-length work for the Rambert Dance Company… ‘Cruel Garden’, based on the life and works of Federico Garcia Lorca. A collaboration with Christopher Bruce, with music by Carlos Miranda, this had been in preparation for some months and opened on 5 July at the Roundhouse. Powerfully marrying dance and theatre, in later years it would be restaged various times, and hailed (not universally, by any means) as one of the UK’s major dance productions of the decade.
Meanwhile, the successes of the last few years were preparing to bear fruit: Europe was beckoning. First stop Yugoslavia (still a Communist regime, of sorts), September 1977, at Belgrade’s BITEF Festival, where an unlikely double bill was presented, featuring ‘Clowns’ at 7pm and ‘Salomé’ at 11pm. Although neither show could be described as being typically British, ‘God save the Queen’ was played before the performances (and in the dressing room he shared with Kemp, Anton Dolin – half way through his make-up – jumped up and stood to attention until the last note). Reaction to the shows was somewhat stunned but deeply enthusiastic. After 3 days in Belgrade (19-21 September), a further performance was given in Zagreb. Having returned to London on the 24th, 2 days later the ‘Salomé’ company took the ferry to Rotterdam: on-board Sally, the company python who partnered Salomé in her dance, caused consternation among fellow passengers. The sold-out performances at the Hofplein Theatre from 28th September to 1st October had a similar effect, but won a great deal more applause.
Negotiations had already been taking place for some time for the next big step… the one that would truly establish the international vocation (and the more or less permanent exile) of Lindsay Kemp and his Company: the first performances in Spain. These proved to be complicated negotiations (up to now the company had no agent and skimpy DIY administration), but eventually arrangements were agreed with the charming Catalan impresario Jordi Morel, and on 25 November 1977 a battered brown coach departed from Kemp’s home in Battersea carrying ‘Flowers’ to Barcelona. The first performance in Spain, at the Teatro Romea on the 1st of December, aroused emotions unlike any other occasion in all the years of Kemp’s world touring. Francisco Franco had died two years earlier, but the Francoist regime and laws were still in force, including strict artistic censorship, and ‘Flowers’ was unlike anything seen in Spain for over 40 years. Throughout the first performance the audience remained in total silence, but at the end, came waves of liberating applause. The emotional impact of the arrival of ‘Flowers’ is still remembered in Spain as a key moment of cultural and political rebirth. It instantly lead to further engagements in Spain (Majorca, Barcelona again and Madrid in early 1978) and a unique standing in that country that would lead to innumerable performances and projects over the following 30 years.
From 1974 to 1978, as we have seen, Lindsay Kemp and the Lindsay Kemp Company became an established (although extremely unorthodox and autonomous) presence on the international stage, transcending the boundaries between theatre, dance, mime and music theatre. If we are to outline here the next 30 years or more of Kemp’s career, our camera will have to now move out from a medium shot to a long shot, and the pages of the calendar will have to blow away in the wind much faster.
To take an extremely long view, the scale of the success in Spain was the springboard for definitively establishing The Lindsay Kemp Company as an international reality… all fixed connections with Great Britain disappeared. It also led to Julio Alvarez becoming the company’s agent -manager-impresario, and for the next 15 years he played a crucial role in promoting and consolidating the company, organising practically non-stop international touring and setting up co-production arrangements with theatres that enabled the creation of a series of new productions.
After 1979 Italy became as passionate as Spain in terms of acclamation and demand (both, in the 1980s, blessed with at least 30 or 40 cities able to boast beautiful theatres and a passionate theatregoing public), and these two countries accounted for perhaps three quarters of the company’s performances every year. But there were also numerous visits, with various productions, to London (repeated seasons at Sadlers Wells), Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Israel, Argentina, Brazil… and many more. In this time “Flowers”, the oft revived trailblazer, was joined in the repertoire by a steady stream of further creations “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1979), a restaged “Salomé”, “Duende” (for Federico Garcia Lorca – 1980), “Nijinsky” (1983), “The Big Parade” (Silent Cinema – 1986), “Alice” (Wonderland, Mirror and Dodgson – 1988), “Onnagata” (Orpheus in kimonos – 1990), and “Cinderella” (1994). Occasionally short breaks in touring provided opportunities for staging exhibitions of Kemp’s drawings and paintings (notably at the Fundaciòn Mirò in Barcelona), creating and directing for other performers (notably “Cruel Garden” for Rambert Dance Company, a collaboration with Christopher Bruce on the life and work of Lorca, later performed by English National Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Berlin Deutschoper Ballet), teaching (almost everywhere he performed), and participating tirelessly in all kinds of projects and events in fashion, film and television.
This decade and a half of extraordinary non-stop creation, where writing, designing and directing new shows went hand in hand with literally performing his heart out, night after night, demanded a permanent tour de force from the man at its centre: an acrobat of the senses flirting with danger, with no safety nets… and numerous falls. Perhaps the most extraordinary of all Kemp’s feats was to physically survive such a prolonged blaze of unbridled creativity. As a footnote one should remember that this was a period when everyday mobile video technology was only just starting to develop: VHS was slowly spreading, and so at least some of the great work of the Kemp heydays in the 1980s was recorded… although not much, tragically, was later saved by digitalisation from VHS-deterioration and dispersal.
The collaboration with Julio Alvarez (whom Lindsay often playfully cast as Diaghilev to his Nijinsky) weakened after 1993, and this – together with the decimation of the Lindsay Kemp Company through AIDS, the decline of arts funding around the world, the passing of time – contributed to a changing context. Lindsay’s productions shifted towards performing solo numbers either in assorted dance Galas or with small groups of key LK Company performers, particularly Nuria Moreno and Marco Berriel, featuring collections of shorter numbers… shows such as “Lindsay Kemp & Friends”, “Dreamdances” and “Reves de Lumiére”. A larger company was briefly assembled in 1996 in London, for the creation of “Varieté”, which opened at the Hackney Empire and had a short tour of the English provinces, but was not taken to Italy or Spain.
Another new development from the mid-1990s was directing opera. After a successful first experience with “The Barber of Seville” at the Macerata Festival in Italy in 1995, major Spanish commissions followed for “The Magic Flute” (1998 and later versions), “The Fairy Queen” (2002), and “Madame Butterfly” (created in 2002, but revived more than 20 times over the following decade), while in Italy he directed Mascagni’s “Iris” (1998) and “Le Maschere” (2001), Verdi’s “La Traviata” (2003), and Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2004), before returning to Spain to direct “The Tales of Hoffmann” in 2007. He adored working in Opera, which was, after all, a perfectly logical extension of his life-long exploration of Music Theatre
In this period, from the mid-nineties, Kemp also staged numerous dance productions for the Teatro Nuovo di Torino, created “Le Train Bleu” for Introdans in Holland, directed for the theatre (“Il Ladro e la Milonga” in Naples) and collaborated on the making of two important documentary portraits, “Travelling Light” by Theo Eshetu and “Gota Roja” by Pablo Benedetti.
In 2004, thanks to the faithful support of the Teatro de Festivales in Santander, came a commission for a new full scale creation for Lindsay Kemp as author and performer, “Elizabeth I, el ùltimo baile”, produced by Concha Busto. This was developed with his long-time creative collaborators David Haughton and Carlos Miranda, and long-time stage companions Nuria Moreno, François Testory and Marco Berriel, with costumes by the Oscar-winning Sandy Powell. Miranda’s rich composition and lyrics, mixed with Powell’s lavish period costume, played a major role in establishing dreamlike blends of Elisabethan and contemporary moods and performance styles. “Elizabeth’s Last Dance”, centred on a haunting portrayal of aging grandeur by Lindsay, mixed with flashbacks to the Tudor Queen’s glorious youth and her tragic loves, clearly showed the influence of his opera directing experiences: it was effectively a modern opera (whose protagonist never made a sound). Despite its success in Spain in 2005, this production was unable to travel to Italy or the UK, although it was revived in Spain and then performed in Tokyo in late 2008, with Amit Lahav as Essex, and David Haughton this time returning to partner Kemp onstage, in the role of Elisabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester… 35 years after first performing together in “Flowers” at the Bush Theatre in London.