Lindsay Kemp, Dancer Who Taught David Bowie, Is Dead at 80

The dancer, actor and choreographer Lindsay Kemp, whose students included David Bowie, in an undated photo.CreditCreditSigfrid Casals/Cover, via Getty Images

By Alex Marshall

Lindsay Kemp, a boundary-pushing British dancer, choreographer and mime who taught David Bowie and Kate Bush how to move, died on Friday at his home in Livorno, Italy. He was 80.

The cause was heart and lung failure, David Haughton, a friend and longtime collaborator, said.

Ms. Bush, in a statement posted on her website, said: “To call him a mime artist is like calling Mozart a pianist. He was very brave, very funny and, above all, astonishingly inspirational.”

Mr. Kemp may have been an inspiration to two of the most important musicians of the 1970s, as well as to countless dancers, but his work — often filled with sex and blood, and with clear nods to its inspirations — was received less favorably by some critics.

“The Broadway theater has not previously seen such realistic simulations of masturbation and sodomy, and the reader is hereby either warned or informed,” Clive Barnes wrote in a New York Times review in 1974 of “Flowers,” Mr. Kemp’s most renowned work. It was based on Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers,” a sexually explicit novel narrated by a prisoner telling tales to help him masturbate.

“Where he does succeed is his theatricality,” Mr. Barnes added. “But it would be unfortunate if Mr. Kemp and his kemp-followers parlayed his modest and derivative talents into a cult.”

Mr. Kemp played the title role in a production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” at the Roundhouse in London.CreditFrank Barratt/Hulton Archive

Mr. Haughton said that the Times review “killed the show in New York” — but that it was in some ways a typical reaction. “His work wasn’t something that left people indifferent. They either loved it or hated it,” he said, pointing out that Mr. Kemp’s habit of fusing multiple types of dance and theater — including Japanese Kabuki, mime, ballet and traditional Spanish dance — was radical at the time.

Mr. Kemp was born in the Wirral, an area of Merseyside next to Liverpool, on May 3, 1938, but grew up in South Shields, on the northeast coast of England. His father, Norman, was a merchant seaman who died while serving in the British Navy during World War II (his boat was torpedoed) when Mr. Kemp was just 2. His mother, Marie, a homemaker, eventually sent him to boarding school, where, he told The Guardian in a 2002 interview, he danced parts of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” for the first time, performing naked except for “layers of toilet paper.”

Mr. Kemp, who admitted to often embellishing his life story for his own amusement, said he danced to entertain the other boys. “I was busted, of course,” he said, “not for the decadence of my performance, but for the wastage of school resources, namely the toilet paper.”

Mr. Kemp would later stage “Salome” at the Roundhouse in London, with himself as the lead, in a performance that featured live pythons.

After school, Mr. Kemp moved to London, where he took dance lessons at Ballet Rambert, now known simply as Rambert. He also briefly studied under the famed mime artist Marcel Marceau. He performed in small roles on the West End, but grabbed more attention after starting his own company, which Mr. Haughton said went through multiple names but was best known as the Lindsay Kemp Company.

David Bowie, then 19, attended an early show and went to Mr. Kemp’s dressing room afterward. “He was like the Archangel Gabriel standing there, and I was like Mary,” Mr. Kemp told the BBC in 2016. “It was love at first sight.”


Mr. Kemp as Nijinsky in Parma, Italy, in 2015.CreditRichard Haughton, via Associated Press

Bowie enrolled in Mr. Kemp’s dance classes the next day. The two became lovers — Mr. Kemp told the BBC they broke up when he found Bowie in bed with a woman — and toured together in “Pierrot in Turquoise.” “He was a genius of a creature, but I did show him how to do it,” Mr. Kemp said.

The pair later collaborated on the stage show for Bowie’s breakthrough “Ziggy Stardust” tour in 1972 and 1973, and Bowie featured Mr. Kemp in the video for his song “John, I’m Only Dancing.”

Kate Bush similarly asked to study under Mr. Kemp after seeing one of his works, in her case “Flowers.” Mr. Kemp assumed Ms. Bush was a struggling artist — even though she had already been signed by EMI — and so gave her a job in wardrobe, sewing sequins onto outfits.

“I can’t say she particularly struck me at first, because she was so timid and waiflike,” he told The Times of London in 2011. “I told her I wanted to see her spirit dancing, for her to be unafraid and audacious.” Ms. Bush returned the favor by dedicating her song “Moving” to him.

In addition to his associations with pop stars, Mr. Kemp entered the public consciousness outside dance circles by making appearances in cult films like Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” (1973) Derek Jarman’s “Sebastiane” (1976) and Todd Haynes’s “Velvet Goldmine” (1998).

No immediate family members survive.

Mr. Haughton said it did not bother Mr. Kemp that he was known more for his associations with other artists than for his own work.

“Obviously, yes, he considered his own work more important — and many people do,” he said. “But he was used to the fact the public associated him with other people. He used to say, ‘Christ, not another question about Bowie!’ But he was joking.”

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