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Kemp, Lindsay (b. 1940?)  
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Mime artist, renegade, and magnetic stage performer, Lindsay Kemp has long had a cult status in alternative theater. With its eclectic mix of elements--the commedia dell' arte, burlesque, music hall, ballet, the circus, improvisations, Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, travesty, pantomime, and cabaret--his style is difficult to characterize.

In productions that are similar to musical revues--neither complete plays nor ballets, but something in between--Kemp and his company have astonished audiences with intense, erotically suggestive theatrical experiences that blur the line between high and low culture.

Once seen, Kemp's work is rarely forgotten. At its best, it achieves a wordless, resonant fusion of idiosyncratic physical, visual, and aural mime elements that vigorously assert the importance of his homosexuality to his performance ethic.

Stylistic Development

Kemp was born sometime around 1940 in South Shields in the North of England to a mother who encouraged his dramatic interests. His father died at sea when Kemp was three years old. While living in Bradford, he befriended young artist David Hockney.

Kemp applied for admission to the Royal Ballet, but was rejected. He later studied with Dame Marie Rambert and Marcel Marceau in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1968 Kemp formed a company of his own. His goal, he declared, was to be a Pied Piper, to lure, seduce, and intoxicate an audience with ravishing but emotionally intense gestures and sensations, to fool them into believing that the dream visions and gender illusions he attempts are real.

Kemp's first great success was a celebrated production of Flowers--a work that captured the essence of Jean Genet's novel and eventually had a triumphant run of six months at the Roundhouse, London in 1974.

Kemp then produced an all male reinterpretation of Wilde's Salome (1976) in which Kemp himself played the young protagonist and performed a seven-veil dance that resembled an ecstatic whirling dervish.

Also in the 1970s, he starred as the great Russian dancer in the title role of Nijinsky, a work choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton described as the most thrilling piece of theater he had ever witnessed. Such performances secured Kemp an adoring following, especially in Spain, Italy, and Japan.

Kemp was also invited to work with choreographer Christopher Bruce of the Ballet Rambert in a production called Cruel Garden (1977), based on the life of gay icon Federico García Lorca. He cast a bullfight scene as a dramatic struggle between freedom and the forces of restriction. This work achieved huge popularity and was revived in 1998.

In these productions, Kemp mixed the beautiful and explicitly erotic with utterly grotesque elements of parody and satire. He pushed the boundaries not only of gender but of what was possible in the theater. In doing so, he emulated Antonin Artaud in attempting to achieve an improvised "total" theater that very often perplexed and repelled dance critics who found what they perceived as bathos and lack of discipline distasteful.

Kemp's uniquely mannered, phantasmagoric style has little use for words. His approach is to grab the senses at their most vulnerable, using stark colors and dissonant lighting contrasts. Fragments of poetry or dialogue occur, but the impact derives from gestures and vibrant tableaux. The effect is richly imaginative, layered, evocative, and, ultimately, enchanting.

Kemp's presence as leader and instigator of his own homogeneous and constantly changing company is crucial. He gathers around him loyal performers and musicians dedicated to promoting the Kemp universe. He encourages his actors to live their roles off stage. In Kemp's world, each mimed gesture emerges from within the body, based on a sure belief that the actor is a king, a harlot, Garbo, a fairy, a beast, Pavlova, a pimp, Isadora Duncan, or a Pierrot.

Derek Jarman's Sebastiane

Film director Derek Jarman used Kemp and his company for the delirious Roman orgy scene that begins his groundbreaking film Sebastiane (1976). Kemp appears in the scene nearly naked, splattered in glitter and sperm. According to Jarman, Kemp is "one of the key gay figures of the sixties and seventies."

Actors from Kemp's company, such as David Haughton and The Incredible Orlando, aka blind actor Jack Birkett, have worked closely with Kemp to enhance the company's style. Birkett also appears in other Jarman films, including The Tempest (1979) and Caravaggio (1989).

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Lindsay Kemp in 1979.
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