Lindsay Kemp’s breathtaking Solo as The Angel in Onnagata

Portraits of Lindsay Kemp by Richard Haughton

This week, Shelley from 50 years in dance is in hospital having a second hip replacement (one of the downsides of being a  dancer unfortunately!). I’m Shelley’s daughter, Nendie and for the last three years I have been making a feature documentary about Lindsay Kemp and his company, filming in Japan, Italy and the UK. So we thought what better time to explore Lindsay Kemp’s extraordinary work.

Painting by Lindsay Kemp

Sailors from ‘Flowers’.

Ship ashore at South Shields 1890

Born in 1938 in South Shields, Lindsay’s fascination with the sea might have started in the seaside town when his Father brought back Oriental silks and postcards from his travels as a merchant seaman. Lindsay was preceeded by a little sister- who by all accounts was a child prodigy- but before she was five, she was taken ill with meningitis and died. Lindsay says he was conceived as a replacement for this sister. His first year was strange, and he lay in his cradle in darkness as he suffered from St.Vitus Dance, a nervous condition, and was kept inside with the curtains closed. Not long after Lindsay’s health had improved,  a second tragedy struck the family when Lindsay’s father was killed at sea by a torpedo.

Lindsay Kemp in Flowers, photos by Richard Haughton.

In Lindsay’s paintings and drawings, in his production of Jean Genet’s Flowers and The Opera Madame Butterfly ,which he has directed numerous times, “The Sailor” is a recurring character. Lindsay himself was made to attend The Naval College in South Shields and for a time was in the Merchant Navy. Lindsay’s mother was charismatic and had natural acting ability. Later in life she appeared in a cameo in Jonathan Miller’s production of Miasma on TV. Had her situation in life been different, she might herself have been a famous actress. As she was an artistic person, she recognised Lindsay’s early talent for performance (although she was not keen for him to pursue a career in the theatre) and in turn, Lindsay used his imaginative routines and humour to rouse her from her frequent introspections. The two were inseperable, Lindsay’s mother often dressing Lindsay in girl’s clothes and makeup which she had improvised, given that she did not have much money. Lindsay says she used rouge taken from the dye in the wallpaper and eyeliner made from charcoal.

Jumping forward in time, Lindsay, having escaped the Navy, had come to London where he attended classes taught by Marie Rambert and embarked on ballet self-education. Rambert used to bang her stick on the floor, and once threw a shoe at Lindsay’s head demanding that “he return to the north immediately”. I can only imagine his infraction was as serious as an arabesque a milimetre too low or eye contact lingering a second too long. Lindsay’s fascination with The Ballets Russes has been sometimes glossed over in the articles and books I have read about him. Instead the focus has been placed on cross-dressing and it’s history, or glam rock, the theatrical avante-garde or gay rights, but there are many ways in which Lindsay’s work seems to me to be in a direct line with Diaghilev’s company at it’s height. Lindsay once talked about  “Cruel Garden”, the astonishing ballet he created with Christopher Bruce saying “I think of myself as Cocteau to Christopher’s Massine”. It is Lindsay’s profound visual sensibility as an artist, his musicality and mastering of atmosphere onstage and in the auditorium that are unusual to a modern-day world of English theatre, where compromise is commonplace and producers present in the creative process. His ability to draw ideas together into a creation in which he has honed every aspect (even the lighting and marketing materials) surely explains why the work has so much impact. This zeal for all parts of the creative process is an echo of the dynamic productions of The Ballets Russes. Lindsay’s other great areas of interest are Contemporary dance (Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Jose Limon)  and the symbolic movements of Japanese set-pieces of Kabuki, Noh and Butoh.

In this solo, called “The Angel” from Onnagata, the flowing movements of the material and the blue lighting brings to mind Lindsay’s interest in the sea, from which he takes sculptural shapes for his drawings. The early dances by Loie Fuller, the stillness of Kabuki and the sadness of it’s heroines, the emotional impact of L’Apres Midi D’un Faun, all influence Kemp.

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