Mime artist, choreographer, dancer and teacher

Born: May 3, 1938;

Died: August 24, 2018

LINDSAY Kemp, who has died aged 80, was an influential avant-garde choreographer and mime whose first steps to fame occurred when he was living with his war-widowed mother in South Shields. A precocious only child, he performed the song Little Old Lady in his garden, charged the local children a penny, and spent the ‘box office take’ on greasepaint. He was six years old.

It sounds like a halcyon start to a career that saw him travel the world with fantastical dance-theatre works that were by turns hilarious, erotic, camp and viscerally shocking - but also enter the annals of rock and pop history because of his creative associations with David Bowie and Kate Bush.

Nonetheless, being a radical visionary - some might say an imp of perversity - often left him penniless. Ultimately he might have wowed them on Broadway, left them speechless in London and been adored all across Europe but Kemp knew, from experience, what it was like to face a potentially hostile audience. He said himself: “There were times when I performed in very low cabaret clubs in the north of England wearing pink tights, pale makeup and a bowler hat. In order not to have beer cans thrown at one, one had to enchant those audiences – and I did.”

The down-times - and the innermost demons, including his battles with alcohol - became an intrinsic part of the vivid stories he told through performances or in everyday conversations and indeed in interviews. Many of the latter pushed for intimate details on his time with Bowie: how they met (in 1966), their relationship - they were briefly lovers - and the significant part Kemp played in the creation of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona and concerts.

There was a similar uprush of interest in Kemp's connections with Kate Bush and her idiosyncratic emergence on the music scene - input she acknowledged on Moving, the song she dedicated to him on her album, The Kick Inside (1978).

Intriguing (and well-documented) as these episodes are, they should not over-shadow the bravura canon of work - Flowers, The Big Parade, Cinderella, Variété, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cruel Garden (with Christopher Bruce) for Rambert among them - that brought Kemp global recognition in his own right, made him a charismatic magnet for famous film-makers and theatre directors alike. His flair for sly mischief made him an elemental Puck, his rapport with pathos gave sad-eyed poignancy to Pierrot, his affinity with kitsch and drag saw him morph into siren-vamp or naughty, lovable granny with equal aplomb.

It is worth noting, however, that the springboard for these exquisite, outrageous adventures lay here, in early 70s Scotland, where Kemp and his company were frequent players on the Traverse stage in Edinburgh, and the Close in Glasgow. Did he really try to lure Bowie north, to play in a pantomime version of Puss in Boots? It’s a piquant rumour, but there is verified archive, and personal witness to Kemp’s presence here.

Morag Deyes, artistic director at Dance Base - now appropriately located in the Grassmarket where the Traverse once held sway - was a part of those giddy times. She was a 15-year-old dance student at the Theatre School of Dance and Drama in the West End (run by William Mowat Thomson) when Kemp not only appeared in the studio, but invited her to join his company.

She recalls how “50 years ago Lindsay burst into our studio like a torgaydo (sic). From that day onwards my entire life changed. Anything in theatre or dance seemed possible.

"I gleefully abandoned what I felt was restrictive ballet training and went directly to the source of the magic without a single moment of doubt. I was taught, insulted, adored, cajoled, inspired, mesmerised and given intimate insights into his creativity that still amaze me.

"I know I'm am not alone in this experience, he gave so much to so many. Lindsay was simply a genius. He changed the vibrations in the room when he performed and was possibly the funniest man I have ever known.”

Kemp had moved to Spain in 1979, subsequently settling in Italy. But he returned to Scotland for the last time in October 2017, leading a week-long masterclass at Dance Base and even performing in the closing showcase. Deyes tells of how she arranged “ a soiree for him to meet his old Edinburgh friends and he had a gorgeous time reuniting .... we were blessed.”

Friends who were with him at the time of his death took to social media to announce the news. Nendi Pinto-Duschunsky, who is working on a documentary titled Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance, said “he had the perfect day rehearsing with his students, about to work more on his memoirs, about to go on tour. He was very happy and it was very sudden.”

David Haughton, his closest friend and collaborator for 45 years, confirmed this, saying "he suddenly said he felt ill, and a minute and a half later he was gone."

This appetite for creating work, embarking on new projects - and the dramatic finale of his sudden death - are quintessential Lindsay Kemp, both on-stage and off.