Lindsay Kemp.

Lindsay Kemp (1938–2018)

British choreographer Lindsay Kemp, whose charismatic performances combined forms including mime, cabaret, and kabuki theater, and who helped artists become themselves, died last week at his home in Livorno, Italy, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. He was eighty years old. “He was very happy and it was very sudden,” wrote Nendi Pinto-Duschunsky, who is working on a documentary titled Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance. According to Pinto-Duschunsky, Kemp had been rehearsing with students and was just beginning his memoirs.

Born near Liverpool in 1938, Kemp became fascinated with dance when he was a child. At seventeen, he auditioned for Ballet Rambert and earned a scholarship, but he needed to complete his military service first. In an interview with BBC in 2016, he described his time in the Air Force as challenging: “I didn’t march . . . I danced.” In the 1960s, after attending Bradford Art College and then studying with expressionist dancer Hilde Holger and French mime Marcel Marceau, he started his own dance company. In London, during the summer of 1966, he met David Bowie, whom he mentored in bodily expression. Under Kemp’s tutelage, Bowie discovered mime, kabuki theater, and commedia dell’arte, forms that inspired—through their exaggerated movements and flouting of gender norms—the musician’s adoption of now-iconic personae like Ziggy Stardust. In 1972, Kemp staged and performed in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre. Kemp, who continued to mentor younger generations until his death, is often said to have taught Kate Bush how to dance. The singer would go on to dedicate a song, “Moving,” to him. “To call him a mime artist is like calling Mozart a pianist,” Bush said in a recent tribute. In addition to acting in countless productions, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mr Punch’s Pantomime, Kemp had cameos in films such as The Wicker Man (1973), as a barkeep, and Velvet Goldmine (1998), as a pantomime dame. He also produced operas in Italy. He kept making art until his death and was working on a theater project he wished to be performed in Como, Italy, this fall.

“I realized that I wanted to dance when I first realized anything at all,” he once said. “For me dancing has always been a shortcut to happiness.”