Although dancer, choreographer and costume and set designer Lindsay Kemp returned to the spotlight in his native UK for a short time last year following the death of David Bowie with whom he had had both a professional and personal relationship, he has never been as well-known or well-loved in his home country as he has been in Italy since the 1970s. This year, in fact, in Florence, Kemp will be participating at the Pitti Uomo fashion event (12th-15th June), while his costumes will be the subject of an exhibition at Le Murate in September entitled The World of Lindsay Kemp, in collaboration with students from the Istituto Europeo del Design (IED)an important school of design in Florence, with branches in Spain, Brazil and in other Italian cities.
Last month I talked to Lindsay at his home in Livorno about preparations for these two events when the projects were still being defined. He was as enthusiastic as ever about his work, and excited about preparing the shows.
Preparation for Kemp Dreams at Pitti Uomo 2017
“I’m mostly occupied with Florence at the moment. It’s so complicated and there is so much work involved. I’m going three times a week, for meetings with sponsors, and the IED. The students are helping me with a show, a kind of fashion event for the Pitti Uomo fashion week in June. That is taking some planning. I know nothing about it yet…a friend who was staying with me – a Scottish lady – suggested ‘tweed! Harris Tweed! It’s the latest thing, it’s been revived!’ But that’s not really what they want! I’m not particularly into Harris Tweed anyway. They want something ‘Kempian’, a fantasy.
They have also asked me to appear. It will be a kind of fantastical ballroom, with masquerade costumes, perhaps inspired by Dyaghilev and the Russian ballet. And then of course the students will do their own versions, you know, look at the pictures and shut the book. There’s only three days to do this! In those three days I meet the students, talk to them about the project and create the costumes for the show on the 4th day. So it’s going to be all improvised.
I hope we can get lots of silks and feathers and stuff, you know. And from that, with pins and the glue gun, make things. Like I used to…well, I still do, when one’s got to get a costume ready in ten minutes because something hasn’t arrived. Or if there’s an extra person or a costume one forgot. Like in the production of Cinderella I did a few years ago: I forgot all about the Lady in Waiting’s costume, so with just what we could find, we pinned and glued it together with the fabulous glue gun! It was an incredible creation…it didn’t last very long, but it looked very lovely on the night. We used paper doilies and things like that!”
The World of Lindsay Kemp
“It’s a fabulous kind of relationship I’m having with the design students – they’re doing all the design, all the graphics for the exhibition, including merchandising, t-shirts etc. It’s all taking place at Le Murate, a big revamped, restyled prison, an incredible space in the centre of Florence. It began life as a convent and then when Napoleon arrived he kicked out the nuns and moved his soldiers in. Later on it became a prison, mostly for political prisoners, I think. Most of it has been redone, not rebuilt, but revamped. It’s really beautiful, involving top architects and so on.
There are parts of it made up of tiny cells, and it’s in these cells that I will be putting the Elizabeth costumes, from the production of Elizabeth I, which are going to be marvellous in those little cells. A kind of installation."
"We’re showing costumes from three productions: Elizabeth I, designed by Sandy Powell, (four times Oscar winner and originally my apprentice, and assistant on my production of Nijinsky, some years ago (2009); The Magic Flute [recently produced with the Orchestra della Toscana in theatres in Tuscany], and also the Maschere by Mascagni which I did here in Livorno years ago . I was very pleased with the costumes. They’re all kind of Commedia dell’Arte, they’re all mine.
"I’m showing the kinds of things I like to look at myself when I go to a gallery: the colour and the excitement, the costumes and wigs. Did you ever go to the costume museum in Covent Garden? Oh it was so wonderful! It’s gone now, like so many marvellous things in London, but it was wonderful with kind of installations, Victorian dressing rooms - of Henry Irving for example, with his costumes hanging there and his make-up table, letters and things. I’m doing a bit of that, but less realistic, more arty. Except for the Elizabeth costumes which are going to be in single cells, the others are in double cells which provide me with a little stage that the audience can look at, with a raised platform and Victorian footlights and five or six costumes. It’s coming…as I’m talking to you, I’m imagining it, you see. It’s usually by talking about the idea that the idea develops."
How long will it take you to set all that up?
"We have five days! It’s not very long but then I have my team of students from the college. I think no more than 6, otherwise I won’t be able to control them! I know exactly where things go. You know, they are helping me with the installations and so on, and I want their task to be creative, I don’t want them just sticking things on where the teacher says, so I have to allow space for their creativity, because that’s part of the whole event, as is their contribution."
"As part of the Lyndsay Kemp festival in Florence I’m also visiting the Meyer children’s hospital where I’m going to be doing a performance of Peter and the Wolf."
"In November the Florence exhibition moves to London to the Forman’s Fish Island Gallery. But before it goes there it may be going to other Italian cities. So it looks as though it’s going to be like a mini Bowie travelling exhibition, with all those costumes…my god!”
Kemp at Pitti Immagine Uomo 2017: Secret Florence, Kemp Dreams Kabuki Courtesans, 15th June 2017, 3pm, Museo del Novecento. Bookings to firstname.lastname@example.org
The World of Lindsay Kemp: inauguration 12th September at 4pm, Le Murate, Florence
Other Kemp performances: Kemp Dances - 14th July 2017, Teatro Persio Flacco, Volterra