Lindsay Kemp RIP – an appreciation of a cultural icon

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In the hours following the news that Lindsay had died, I have never felt more loneliness in my life. It is hard to understand how only two months ago we performed on stage to a crowd with all the abandon of children playing to parents in a playground, without a single thought that it might not last forever.  He was a true friend to so many of us, and I suspect like me, nobody else ever acknowledged his age.  Like Lindsay, I’ve never paid much attention to people’s age or gender.  All that mattered with Lindsay and indeed with all the souls we truly treasure in our lifetime, is their spirit.

In the two years that we got to know each other as friends and eventually, collaborators, the impact his spirit was to have on me as a person and an artist remains one of the most valuable times of my life.  Not only that, but his attitude towards life was one I recognised to be the same attitude everyone I grew up with in the theatre was motivated by – an ever-pulsating ability to search for the beauty in human nature and express it as much as possible, through love, life and art.  He became a missing relative that I found just in time.

And so now, his passing is of special poignancy to me in that so much of what Lindsay lived for and represented would appear to be the antidote to everything that is so often missing in the world today: acceptance, tolerance, study, generosity, and above all, unconditional love, for ourselves and one another.

Only recently, my dear friend, the New York poet and spoken word pioneer Paul Mills (aka Poez) remarked that the very people who originally fought for all we hold dear in our civil liberties, rights, freedom of expression, equality and peace, all seem to be dying at the very moment when we truly need them and what they stood for.  As he says in his poem This Is Not The Time: “This is not the time to put your splintered drumsticks away”.  No, it is a time when we must bang our drum and make our humanity heard.

In 2009, shortly before he passed away, the actor Pete Postlethwaite wrote to me about the enduring appeal of Shakespeare which he summated with the words “It is simply Shakespeare’s love of us and our humanity that keeps him alive”.

Our love for each other and our self-love as human beings is at the heart of so much of the suffering we see, and are a part of, in the world today.  And that is where Lindsay, like a firefly in the dark clouds of our lives, mesmerised us all, awakening the inner child to remember the possibilities of how beautiful, courageous, free, imaginative and infinitely impressive we can be, just by being who we are.

Lindsay was a portal for love.  It hardly mattered who or what received it.  Wherever he went and wherever he performed, love emanated from within him and I am sure anyone else who was fortunate enough to have met him or worked with him would say the same.

He adored Picasso, and spoke of him often to me, reciting the great artist’s quote about all children being born artists and society growing the art out of us all as we get older. Lindsay surely fought this all his life, as to the very end, the openness in his art was always as free as a child.

During rehearsals for our show ‘What Love Would Want’, he took painstaking efforts in every detail of our performance, most memorably to show me the right way to hold hands with him and the cast during our bows to the audience.  He stopped the rehearsal, turned each of my hands around so that they were open to the auditorium and said “We aren’t just holding each other dear, we’re holding the audience as well.”

Loz Kaye, Lindsay Kemp, Tim Arnold and Emmanuel Vass, Bridgewater Hall, 2018. Photo by Giulia Zonza

It seemed so simple, and was one of the many invaluable lessons in true performance he gave me during our time together.  These are the details only a master knows that the audience never notice, but are elevated by, without their knowledge. It’s a form of genius born out of theatre that Lindsay singlehandedly taught most of British Pop culture over the last half a century, and his seeds of wisdom have taken root in everything I have created since we met, as they have done with so many other performers.  I’ve has a propensity to search for mentors all my life, from Buddhist monks and human rights activists to Hawkes of Saville Row, but I was genuinely caught out by the Socratic paradox the moment I met Lindsay: “I know that I know nothing.”  Everything I thought I knew about life, love and art started again as soon as he began to unravel the ingredients of his magic spells. He was the greatest mentor I have ever had the privilege to learn from.

In the two songs of mine we worked on together, I asked Lindsay to play the lead role both times.  The first, ‘Change’ he played the role of change, showing only in his face how each of our emotions blur into the next, distinct and yet seamless. He showed how elation turned to regret, regret to hope, hope to doubt, doubt to acceptance and acceptance to joyous surprise.

In What Love Would Want, he played the role of Love.  Since working on What Love Would Want for over a year now, the song has taken on many forms and eventually became a multimedia project that has since evolved into a movement.  Whilst it had already touched the lives of all the people I filmed in the videos for the song, my challenge of making people understand that I was trying to personify love as a character in it’s own right was still eluding me.  Until Lindsay stepped forward.  He transcended gender, age and image, and somehow embodied the person I had characterised as love in my writing.  The cast and creative team for our live arts installation at Manchester’s Bridgwater Hall in June this year saw over one hundred people work together to deliver this awe inspiring production, which although I was the architect of, I felt as much a spectator of as a participant.  Every single person working with us made a point of telling me how much hope and uncontainable love Lindsay brought into their lives for those three days of rehearsals and performance.

Never before had such an abstract idea in any of my songs become a living breathing being of flesh and blood.  So much so, that when I sang the words ‘Ask what love would want’ during the performance, members of the audience turned to Lindsay and understood what we were saying to them.  You could see what love would want by losing yourself in Lindsay’s face, his shapes and his dance.  We both knew we were doing it for the art, the entertainment and the show.  But we also knew we were doing it to send a message of solidarity for the thousands of people all over the world who do not enjoy the same civil liberties that we do. It was our message of love and light to those who need it the most. For me it remains the most fully realised idea of anything I have achieved in my work, and it could not have happened with anyone other than Lindsay Kemp, for which I will always be grateful and continue to dedicate and honour him in every future production of What Love Would Want. There was a particular soul to the project I could not quite put my finger on from the moment it started.  LIndsay captured it with both hands and embodied it completely.

What Love Would Want, Manchester 2018. Photo by Giulia Zonza

Tim Arnold and Lindsay Kemp with flowers from Kate Bush, Manchester 2018. Photo by Steve Iggulden

I am humbled to have produced and directed Lindsay’s last performance in the UK, the video for which I was about to send to him for approval the weekend of his passing.  I will now be making arrangements with Lindsay’s close circle to choose a publication date for the video and if you would like to be notified when the video becomes public, please subscribe here so we can all join in celebrating one of his last and most inspiring performances when I have finished editing the film.  You may also wish to join our Facebook Group here, where we will be sharing photos and footage of Lindsay and the cast over the forthcoming weeks.  I have sat in an editing suite for the last month looking at every angle of his art and deliberating over how it should be presented. It will be difficult for me to finish because it means  I will no longer spend my days with him dancing across my screen.  When I have finished it, I hope with all my heart that it will inspire through the screen as it did on stage at that breathtaking performance.

Lindsay was often called The Silent Poet.  With each miniature movement of his angelic face, he told us stories in silence that enabled us to hear our own imagination, free from the noise of the world, our deepest desires could finally speak.  He collaborated with our imagination and helped us to hear it all the more clearly, by giving us his silence.

His face of a thousand expressions may now be still, finally, but the angelic silence continues, with it’s infinite possibilities and endless space. In that silence, both ours and Lindsay Kemp’s unwritten poetry can, and will continue to flow, for as long as the world keeps turning.

Buona note dolce principe e voli d’angelo ti guidino, cantando, al tuo riposo.

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2 comments on “Lindsay Kemp RIP – an appreciation of a cultural icon”

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  1. …so beautiful…

  2. What a lovely tribute. Btought a tear to my eye.

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