meet lindsay kemp, the man who taught bowie to dance

Before he became Ziggy Stardust, performance artist Lindsay Kemp helped the singer craft the magical, theatrical presence that would define his career.

by Десислава Тодорова
17 February 2016, 2:05pm

It was in London, during the summer of 1966, when avant-garde mime artist Lindsay Kemp first met the young David Bowie -- an encounter that would change both their lives forever. Kemp was performing his latest show Clowns, inspired by Picasso's early paintings, in a little theater on Saint Martin's Lane in the West End, when a mutual friend introduced the pair. The 20-year-old Bowie had just released his debut album and Kemp played the song, "When I Live My Dream," during one of his performances. At the time, Bowie was working in an office for an advertising company, his music going nowhere following the release of novelty single "The Laughing Gnome" and only a step away from shaving his head and becoming a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Scotland. Soon after meeting, however, the pair were wandering around cafés, jazz clubs and small theaters, listening to Skiffle bands and Jacques Brel and discovering the flourishing alternative Soho art scene. They put a mime show called Pierrot in Turquoise, followed by a TV version, The Looking Glass Murders, where Bowie both wrote and performed the music. It was a "marriage of two imaginations, two talents." During their "glorious time" together, Kemp would teach Bowie how to express himself through his body and embed kabuki theatre in his stage performances.

What did you think of Bowie when you first saw him?
David was brought by a mutual friend to see me at my show Clowns in the West End. He was delighted to hear one of his songs, 'When I Live My Dream' played before the performance. After the show he came to my dressing room and asked if I could teach him. He came to visit me the following day in my flat in Bateman Street in Soho and began staying with me. I was teaching at the time, at the dance center in Covent Garden and when he came, he was an A student. He was very passionate about everything he did. And in no time we devised a little show together called 'Pierrot In Turquoise.'

What was it like living with him?
We had a pretty glorious time together. He continued to study with me very vigilantly. I taught him firstly how to express himself through his body and how to communicate through his body. And then a couple of years later, David asked me to set out the stage for his Ziggy Stardust shows in the Rainbow Theater. I mimed the entire saga Ziggy Stardust in front of David and Tony DeFries [Bowie's manager at the time] and they loved it. The best part about the show though, was when David sat alone on a stool under the spotlight and sang 'My Death.'

How did David invite you to take part in Ziggy Stardust?
Towards the end of 1967 it was Angela [Bowie] who came up to Edinburgh, where I was living and performing Flowers. She came with David's orders to bring me and my company to London, to participate in Ziggy Stardust in Rainbow Theater. In fact, she came up with the recording of 'Ziggy Stardust,' which David requested I should listen to and see if I was interested in setting out a stage. Then I went down to London, I visualized the show immediately. I could see exactly how it looked. I had a meeting with David in Tony DeFries's studio, and I mimed the entire saga of Ziggy Stardust. Of course, they were very pleased and impressed so we started rehearsals for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.

What did you think of Angela Bowie?
Oh, I liked her a lot. Angela was my friend -- so energetic and so passionate. She was very talented and, of course, she was a power unsown. She very much pushed David: she got him dressed and got him to the recording studio. She was so instrumental in creating Ziggy Stardust. It was wonderful going out with Angela, especially going shopping and for make-up, costumes, accessories and so on.

And what about David?
He didn't share a great deal. His extrovertedness appeared with his performances. He was relatively conservative and quiet. Everything we did was around our work, around the performance. We went out but we did little socializing. He'd also take me to meet his parents, where they played me with such pride, his record 'The Laughing Gnome.'

In his last video, "Lazarus," it seems as if he's paying tribute to your pantomime lessons?
I haven't seen it yet. I was obviously very upset about David. He meant a lot to me. It still brings tears to my eyes, especially when I hear 'When I Live My Dream.'

Do you feel his presence in a way?
Oh my God! Absolutely. In that sense, in a way, he's here in the room. As we speak he's in here in the room, smiling approvingly.

Did you stay in touch after him retiring Ziggy?
No, he didn't. I saw him several years after Ziggy, performing in Canada. He dedicated his last song to me, which I missed.

What was your influence on rock'n'roll?
My influence was quite huge. Rock'n'roll performers like Little Richard and Elvis wore make-up before Ziggy Stardust. What I brought to rock'n'roll was this kind of theatricality and the discipline in the movements.

What's lying ahead for you professionally?
I was born dancing and it gives me so much pleasure. I would not want to do anything else. Teaching as a child was very important to me. As soon as I learned how to do a dance step, I wanted to teach it to the other children. I wanted to teach them dancing so they could participate in my childhood shows which we would perform in the backyard during the war. It's teaching where I find myself the most useful. And, of course, I continue performing.

Get to know more about Lindsay Kemp's life and work with David Bowie this May at the Ace Hotel in London. Events include a discussion with Marc Almond, hosted by Nicholas Pegg, author of 'The Complete David Bowie', a rare screening of 'The Looking Glass Murders' (1970) and Pinto-Duschinsky's upcoming documentary featuring footage from 'Lindsay Kemp's Last Dance'.


Text Desislava Todorova
Photography Lindsay Kemp and David Bowie Copyright Mick Rock 1973, 2016.
David Bowie as 'Cloud' with Lindsay Kemp and Jack Birkett live during performance of 'Pierrot in Turquoise at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill, London 4th March 1968. Copyright Jak Kilby.

david bowie
lindsay kemp