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Choreographer Lindsay Kemp: the man who taught David Bowie and put glam rock on the map

Holly Gordon

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in British choreographer Lindsay Kemp's case, imitation made David Bowie.

Kemp — who is also a storied dancer, actor, mime and teacher — is 77 now, and continues to dance ("miraculously," he says) as part of the show Kemp Dancers, which is currently touring Italy, where Kemp lives.

It’s been nearly 50 years, but the choreographer remembers those heady days of the late '60s vividly. Kemp met Bowie in the fall of 1967, when Kemp used "When I Live My Dream," a song from Bowie’s first EP, as a curtain warm-up to his show Clowns. Bowie was in the audience one night during the play’s run, and was "utterly enchanted," as Kemp describes.

"He fell in love with my world, you know, with my kind of circus world.... Afterwards he came backstage and expressed a desire to learn from me, to study with me. And it was love at first sight. I mean, the moment I saw him, God, love at first sight."

The two had what Kemp calls a "fairly short-lived" affair — "we fell out, unfortunately, over a woman" — and collaborated both during and after their romantic relationship, resulting in their first play together, Pierrot in Turquoise, a TV show based on that play (The Looking Glass Murders) and what ended up bringing Bowie into the limelight: Ziggy Stardust.

When we think of Bowie today, words like "audacious" and "experimental" come immediately to mind, but Kemp had to coax those descriptors out of the man who would become the Thin White Duke.

At the suggestion of Glen Hansard, our guest editor, we (gladly) called Kemp at his home in Italy to talk about Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, the art of performance and love.

On the day after Bowie and Kemp met

"He came to my flat the next day — I lived in Soho at the time in London — and we talked a lot, we played a lot and we laughed a lot. And he started doing classes with me, I was teaching in London at that time, at a great studio space called the Dance Centre, where a lot of people came. ... Of course there was Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush and you know, a lot of would-be pop stars as well as dancers and actors."

On changing Bowie’s career path

"Just before I met David, he was planning on giving up music altogether. I mean, he was feeling very disillusioned. God he [worked] very hard and his manager … worked very hard to get him gigs but he felt he wasn't really going anywhere. When we met, he was in fact working in an office, you see. And had been studying Buddhism for quite a while, and in fact was planning on chucking the whole thing in, I mean music and so on. And going up to Scotland to a monastery to join a brotherhood of Tibetan monks. Well I saved him from that [laughs]."

"And we wrote this little show, Turquoise, because turquoise was the Buddhist symbol for everlastingness. Our love affair didn't last forever, unfortunately, it was fairly short-lived. But whilst we were together, we did create this very wonderful show."

On teaching Bowie

"Firstly, I told him that I wanted to see his spirit dancing. I really believe that movement is the soul's desire to be free. And therefore had to begin by kind of freeing him from his timidity, his shyness. I mean he was very keen, he had the desire, God knows, but it took a lot of gymnastics, physical work, to make his body more flexible. He certainly had the imagination of the dancer. But I told him, I encouraged him to be more audacious, you know, more experimental. To take risks and so on."

"He followed very much my example, in those days, I was considered to be quite audacious — as we often are in our youth. And he just loved so much being part of my world."

"He was very very popular in the class, especially with the ladies. I mean during the improvisation, they were all too keen to roll around with him on the floor to the surging sounds of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. And I think he quite enjoyed himself. He was very stiff. I mean, physically stiff. And he was also physically very inhibited. He's not what I would call a natural dancer in the way that Michael Jackson or God knows Mick Jagger is, so it took a lot of work just on the physical. But of course he was extremely imaginative and a very good and diligent student. He was always there."

On Ziggy Stardust

"Well [David] gave me the record, which had all the songs that we are familiar with from Ziggy Stardust. Later on he added a couple of Lou Reed numbers.... And armed with this record, I played it and visualized it all immediately. I could see how it should look. And a couple of days later I went down to London to meet David and to meet [his manager] Tony DeFries, in Tony DeFries’ office, accompanied by the record, I performed. I performed the entire show, doing David's bits and my bits and everybody else's bits, you see, and putting the story together. They were thrilled, they were quite enchanted."

"Listening to David's songs I could see immediately how to put them in a dramatic context and so on. That was the easy part. In fact the whole preparation seemed easy, David was an absolute joy to work with, to direct. I mean I was still a bit in love with him I suppose. Not as much as I had been, but it was a very lovely experience."

"And so I became the first Queen Bitch and the Star Man and many of the characters in the songs. And of course it was really Ziggy Stardust that we know was a kind of marriage between rock 'n' roll and my own style of theatre, which at the time was considered very avant-garde but it was based in fact very much on tradition, on the musical and on the circus.... I planned on it being an extravaganza. And an extravaganza it was, and of course it was what put what they call glam rock on the map."

"Lou Reed used to sit in on rehearsals and so did Iggy Pop and some of our old pals, they were very very encouraging. Very happy times, they were ... it was another world, another age. I mean, they were all there. I think Andy Warhol was there as well. I think Andy Warhol and I had to carry Lou Reed out at the end of the show. I read that! I don't actually remember that, but I read it somewhere. Of course, you can't believe everything you read."

On the end of Kemp and Bowie, collaborators

"I always hoped that we might've worked together again [after Ziggy Stardust] but so far we haven't. You never know, the phone might ring."

Lindsay Kemp's Last Dance, a documentary by director Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky, is in production. Check out the trailer here.