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David Bowie Collaborator Lindsay Kemp on His Early Days as Mime-Dancer

Though mime-dancer-choreographer Lindsay Kemp was never a household name, his place in music history is assured by his collaborations with David Bowie, which began in 1967 and led the star into the creation of his Ziggy Stardust stage persona.

Kemp helped Bowie develop his skills as a mime, dancer and performer, and worked with Bowie on everything from costume design (with the help of genius designer Natasha Korniloff) to co-creating the stage piece “Pierrot in Turquoise” in 1970, which led to Bowie’s “Pierrot” stylings for the landmark “Ashes to Ashes” album and video. Later, Kate Bush credited Kemp with invigorating her own groundbreaking music videos and stage performances.

Kemp spoke with Variety on Aug. 10 from his home in Livorno, Italy, just two weeks before his death, on Aug. 25. All of his humor, ebullience and joy of performing was intact and illuminated this conversation. He easily recalled the names and places of European culture and his own days in British vaudeville halls was instantaneous. With his passing, a remarkable link to post-World War II British culture has been lost, but his art and influences thankfully live on.

Kemp was first mentioned in Variety on July 27, 1960, in a review of the musical “Joie de Vivre.”

In the 1930s, the play “French Without Tears” helped launch the career of playwright Terrence Rattigan. But in 1960, the musical adaptation “Joie de Vivre” was not a success. What went wrong?

A man named Robert Stolz did the music, and in his prime he was quite a genius. But he was nearly 80 when he wrote this. We did a very long tour — about three months — to get the show ready for London. And then we closed after two performances. I think Mr. Stolz just didn’t really have it anymore.

But the failure didn’t stop your progress.

I was terribly young, but then I have always been an entertainer. I was born dancing. I may have been the only person in England who was sad when World War II ended because I was in the bomb shelters in South Shields doing my Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda impersonations while the bombs were falling.

Your flamboyance would seem to be at odds with British reserve, especially for young men in the 1950s.

I believe the only way I survived some tough times at boys schools was by the art of hypnotism. I was known for performing and was always creating programs, usually musical variety shows and cabaret stage acts.

And you served in the Armed Forces.

And spent most of my time performing. “Stella by Starlight” was one of my top numbers.

British show business of that era sounds like an unforgiving place to learn your craft.

I was working in Blackpool as a choreographer and light comedian. It was so like Archie Rice in John Osbourne’s “The Entertainer.” I remember for a while I never got paid because my salary all went to paying fines for ad-libbing during the shows. You had to read the fine print in the contract to figure that one out! But from there I started a cabaret show called “The Trio Linzi” and that put us on the map.

Did this lead to more prestigious shows in London?

I would call what I was doing artistic entertainment, but in reality I was the choreographer for striptease acts in places like Southend-on-Sea. I had lofty goals and devised a show that was beautiful. I wanted to produce a ballet opera on stage and put a spell on the audience. The music was Messiaen and the show was very arty. I was inspired by artists like Maurice Béjart and I would do the shows in drag, with lots of feathers. These were small productions and though we never made much money, they were quite beautiful.

You found inspiration in many of your European contemporaries.

Yes! The greatest of them all for me was Zizi Jeanmaire, who was a wonderful ballerina and the wife of the great ballet impresario Roland Petit. The Big Three for me were Marcel Marceau, Zizi and Marlene Dietrich. Later, I did become a student of Marceau.

Were you developing your own reputation by the time you arrived in London?

Yes, I remember certain headlines. Like “Lindsay Mimes His Own Business.” I scored quite nicely at the Players’ Theatre in London, which had a long-running program called “Late Joys” where I danced and sang and impressed the audience with my audacity.

Do you come from a show business family?

Well, I like to claim I’m a descendant of William Shakespeare’s great actor and clown, William Kempe. He was the greatest exponent of Morris Dancing and in fact danced all the way from London to Stratford. He was fired by Shakespeare because he kept changing all of the Bard’s lines.

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