Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Lindsay Kemp

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

Lindsay Kemp (left) performing Flowers in Turin, Italy, 1985. Photo: Danielle Fazio.

Lindsay Kemp

In England, pantomime in the postwar era departed from the imperturbable Christmas pantomime format through the figure of Lindsay Kemp (1938-2018). Though he studied under Marceau, most of his education was in dance, in London, from the Marie Rambert Company and Hilde Holger (1905-2001), a Viennese expatriate and exponent of expressionist dance. He claimed that, from infancy, “I never walked, I always danced. For me dancing is so much more pleasurable than walking” (Lewis 2016). Yet he was never important as a dancer or choreographer. It was his skill in pantomime that enabled him to enjoy a very long career as a performer. After struggling for several years to discover his own unique performance style, he formed a three-person company in 1964, which staged a mime revue in London, Clowns (1966). The show impressed the rock musician David Bowie (1947-2016), who became Kemp’s student at the Covent Garden Dance Centre, and then invited Kemp to collaborate with him on music productions. Through Kemp, Bowie, whose career as a singer kept stalling, learned how to construct a more effective, theatrical performance persona, for Kemp displayed a powerfully liberating fearlessness in cultivating a flamboyantly theatrical personality. Bowie and Kemp produced a pantomime, Pierrot in Turquoise (1967), for which Bowie wrote the songs and played the character Cloud; Kemp played Pierrot, whom Colombine discards in favor of Harlequin; Pierrot kills Harlequin and maybe Colombine as well when she resists his attempt to rape her (Pierrot in Turquoise 2015 [1970]; cf. Waldrep 2015: 25). The show was peculiar for several reasons: Cloud (Bowie), in whiteface and white gown, was a melancholy, singing commentator on the pantomimic action. Harlequin (Jack Birkett [1934-2010]) was a bald, nearly nude, muscular black man who wore large earrings and mascara and knitted. Birkett, who had worked with Kemp since 1956, was also blind. Pierrot wore a sixteenth century tunic while Colombine (Annie Stainer) wore a complementary period dress and extravagant blonde wig, but she bared her breasts for Harlequin. Pierrot inhabited a cluttered room stuffed with Victorian bric-a-brac, and when, after dressing, he looks into a full-length mirror, he sees Colombine. When he steps through the mirror toward her, he enters an abstract space, filled with ladders and manikins, where sexual scenes and the murders take place. Pierrot in Turquoise was not a comic piece, but a bizarre evocation of pathos stimulated less by the conventional tragic love triangle story than by a “fatal” atmosphere of sexual ambiguity. Kemp worked with Bowie on fashioning the singer’s alien, androgynous “Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust” persona of the early 1970s, and in the late 1970s, he worked with English rock singer Kate Bush (b. 1958) in developing an energetic movement style for her concert performances and music videos: “I had no qualifications in ballet. I had almost given up the idea of using dance as an extension of my music, until I met Lindsay Kemp, and that really did change so many of my ideas. He was the first person to actually give me some lessons in movement […] it’s more like mime” (Bush 1982). In 1973, Kemp produced in London Flowers, a Pantomime for Jean Genet, which became perhaps his most successful production and which Kemp himself regarded as his “most fabulous” achievement. He based the piece on the novel Notre Dame de les Fleurs (1943) by Jean Genet (1910-1986), who wrote the book clandestinely while imprisoned for theft. Initially, Kemp wanted to stage Genet’s one-act play The Maids (1947), with men playing the maids and their female employer in drag, as Genet intended, but another London theater forbade him because it had already scheduled its own production starring Susannah York, Vivien Merchant, and Glenda Jackson. He responded by putting together Flowers in a hastily improvised manner.

Genet’s novel poetically inventories the various sordid, underworld characters who inspire the incarcerated narrator’s masturbatory sexual fantasies. The chief criminal character is the transvestite prostitute Divine, whose death the narrator announces at the beginning of the book, which therefore describes his memories of Divine and her interactions with different criminals, including her masochistic love for the murderous pimp Darling Daintyfoot. In Flowers, Kemp plays Divine in whiteface and whitened body and in several different costumes. As in nearly every one of his subsequent productions, he removes his wig to display his bald head. Much of the action consists of showing Divine’s attraction to men in a gay nightclub setting and the men leaving her for other men to emphasize Genet’s theme of betrayal as the basis for the redemptive “abjection” he regards as proof of love. Divine performs a couple of slow solo dances, makes sweeping and delicate movements with a fan, makes voluptuous movements with a veil, and, powdered entirely in white and wearing only a jockstrap and a veil, metamorphoses into Our Lady of the Flowers, a saintly figure who hovers affectionately over the the nearly nude body of a symbolically crucified criminal. The music accompanying the action consists of recorded excerpts of classical music, religious music, ballet music, and old music hall tunes. Lush and sometimes lurid colored light bathes the stage. While Kemp likes to sprint about when he dances, most of his movements are slow, deliberate, protracted, and the pace of the show (and in all subsequent productions) is leisurely, for, as he explained, “I always take my time, because I love to make the audience wait, and the audience loves that.” The slowness, he believed, contributes to a mood of “intoxication” that is the goal of performance: “I’m terribly into intoxication—that’s the only thing that counts” (Brown 1974). Before Flowers, pantomime had perhaps never represented male homosexuality—and certainly male masturbation—so explicitly. His audience was—and remained—primarily gay, but that audience was large enough to sustain him and his company for decades. The extravagantly theatrical “camp” aesthetic ascribed to him signified an art openly designed for the pleasure of homosexuals without, however, becoming confused with the parodies and comic travesties of nightclub drag acts. Kemp brought a sweet pathos, an “intoxicating” self-indulgence, and a seriousness of purpose to his flamboyant productions that released camp from the need to be laughable. With him, pantomime signified a rapturous freedom of being that entailed a daring, necessary shamelessness. Occasionally he appeared as a bizarre character in films, perhaps most memorably in Sebastiane (1976), directed by Derek Jarman (1942-1994). Here he was an ancient Roman dancer performing for “decadent” aristocrats at a villa party. His dance is lewd: he is nude except for an ornamental codpiece, his entire body is powdered white and his eyes heavily mascared. As he undulates lasciviously, he excites a group of six otherwise nude men who wear giant paper mache penises. These men circle around him with increasing frenzy, prodding him with their penises, until they lift him up, glorify him, lower him to the marble floor, and ejaculate onto him. It is a scene of “intoxicating” excess that tests the film viewer’s capacity for shamelessness. 

After Flowers, he produced numerous pantomimes that toured internationally: Salomé (1975), Mr. Punch’s Pantomime (1975), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1979), Duende (1980), Façade (1982), Nijinsky (1982), The Big Parade (1985), Alice (1988), Onnagata (1990), Cinderella (1993), Variété (1996), Rêves de Lumière (1997), Dreamdances (1998), Elizabeth’s Last Dance (2005) and Kemp Dances (2015), with many of these shows employing music written for them by the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda (b. 1945) (cf. Wilms 1987). But none of these productions achieved nearly the impact of Flowers; while his literary and historical inspirations changed over the years, he relied almost entirely on the pantomimic tropes, devices, movements, and images that he introduced in Flowers. Nevertheless, as Margaret Willis has remarked, “he possesses a magnetic personality onstage that draws the onlooker into his make-believe world. His skin is painted white, his eyes panda-black, and his lips ruby-red; his puckish features are topped by his shiny bald head. And he likes to wear dresses. His drag performances are reminiscent of a beloved granny getting up to do an impromptu party piece with an endearing abandon, beaming with a self-satisfaction that cuts through any embarrassment” (Willis 2002). In 1979, he moved his company to Spain, where his shows were very popular; in 1991, he moved the company to Rome and to a former monastery. But in Britain, despite the proliferation of mime courses and the prestigious annual London International Mime Festival, established in 1977, no one has come close to matching Kemp’s success in pantomime, perhaps because it requires an intimidating level of courage (cf., Senelick 2000, 409-411).

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