Young performers lack passion: Lindsay Kemp’s final word

He was the influential dancer, actor, teacher, mime artist and choreographer who was a mentor for David Bowie and embraced the avant garde.

But Lindsay Kemp, who died aged 80 four months ago, didn’t think much of the younger generation of artists. In a previously unpublished interview, he chides the contemporary artistic community for producing “superficial” work without cultural hinterland or passion.

“My experience of working with dancers and actors is that very few of them have much grounding in the history of their art form, and few explore the related arts – painting, music, literature and the cinema,” he said, adding: “It’s sad to see that so few young actors and dancers are interested in what went before.

“If you don’t explore what went before, and learn from that, the present lacks depth and perspective. We see so much today that is superficial, without roots in the heart, or passion.”

Kemp was talking frankly to his friend, the director Jaq Bessell, for a forthcoming book on the craft of performing Shakespeare.

Lindsay Kemp in 2002 Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

He said: “Shakespeare knew what had gone before, and how little human nature changes over the centuries. He didn’t invent his plots, but he reinvented and reimagined many tales that had proved themselves effective in the past.”

Kemp learned his craft at Ballet Rambert in London and with the mime artist Marcel Marceau in Paris, going on to form his own company and stage ground-breaking productions known for their flamboyant excess. Bowie took dance classes with him in the 1960s and they became friends, collaborating on the Ziggy Stardust concerts and challenging the way rock music was performed live.

Talking to Bessell, Kemp also criticised today’s training: “The rhythms and the musicality of Shakespeare’s language can make the meaning clear for any audience, provided the actor has sufficient training, technique and talent. There isn’t time in rehearsals to teach these skills if they are not already there. These days the actor is rarely equipped with all the performer’s skills which were once de rigueur. In the past, the acrobatic harlequin in pantomime at Drury Lane was often seen, some nights later, playing Shakespeare; in later years [the Australian performer] Robert Helpmann successfully played Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon and afterwards danced the same role in his ballet at Covent Garden.

David Bowie, who was mentored by Kemp, in a 1973 production of Pierrot in Turquoise.

David Bowie, who was mentored by Kemp, in a 1973 production of Pierrot in Turquoise. Photograph: Scottish Television

“Today the actor’s training often lacks breadth and body. Dance is often not included in drama school courses, and if it is there’s certainly not enough of it.”

The book, Shakespeare in Action, will be published by Bloomsbury on 24 January. It includes 30 interviews with practitioners from some of the larger theatres in the UK and the US. Actors, designers, directors and choreographers, including Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, give insights into their approaches.As head of research at Shakespeare’s Globe during Mark Rylance’s tenure, Bessell developed a particularly keen interest in verse-speaking techniques. She has directed plays by Shakespeare and modern playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2016 she and Kemp co-directed Romeo and Juliet for the Verona Shakespeare Festival. Her book is dedicated to him.

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