BY MIN CHEN
In the 2014 documentary The Kate Bush Story, legendary performer Lindsay Kemp recounted his interactions with a young Kate Bush, who arrived as a student at the Dance Center in London’s Covent Garden in 1976. Much earlier, the 16-year-old had caught his now-iconic performance, Flowers—his movement-based adaptation of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers—and fell under its spell. “Suddenly, it dawned on me,” she later recalled, “that there was a whole new world of expression that I hadn’t even realized.” Hence, the “very, very serious” creature who stepped into Kemp’s classroom, eager to learn yet “timid as hell.” He emboldened her enough to move from the back of the class to the front, then simply, to move. “Once Kate actually started dancing, she was wild,” he remembered. “I mean, she was wild.”
Months on, back in his Battersea home, Kemp received a fresh pressing of Bush’s first LP, The Kick Inside, released in 1978. He was taken by surprise; he’d had no inkling of her musical ambitions. “I never knew she had aspirations to be a singer,” he said. “She never talked about herself.”
Indeed, the British singer-songwriter, then and today, remains of the class of artists who prefer to let their work do all the talking. “My work says more interesting stuff than I ever could,” she insisted in 1993. Accordingly, that work—spanning 10 records thus far—doesn’t necessarily emerge from a personal place, but culls its ideas from literature (“The Sensual World”), cinema (“The Red Shoes”), nature (50 Words For Snow), and so forth. Her work tells stories, reveals worlds, unfurls emotions; a marital farce on “Babooshka,” a haunted stage on “Hammer Horror,” the heart-racing tension of love bearing down on “Hounds of Love.” In it, we learn less about the woman than the artist within—a visionary, omnivorous, and yes, wild individual ingesting and synthesizing a myriad of forms into singular statements. She hungers for expression but also, to express.
And she’s told us right from the beginning. The Kick Inside aired her considerable musical talents—that unholy voice, her songwriting capabilities—as well as her inclinations towards the visual and performative. Her debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” for one, is a divine marriage of text, music, dance, and film. While titled after the 1847 Emily Brontë novel, the track was inspired by Bush’s viewing of a BBC television adaptation (she did read the novel too to “get the research right”) and lyrically, recounted the tug of love between Cathy and Heathcliff, while belying its cinematic origins. “Out on the wily, windy moors / We roll and fall in green,” go its opening lines. Adding to that visual aspect were two accompanying videos—both directed by Keith MacMillan and choreographed by Bush with help from one of dance tutors Robin Kovac, who was paid £30 for her efforts—artifacts intended for promotion, but also, formal introductions to an uncommon artist.
The two films differ largely in setting—one’s shot in a starkly lit studio and the other in a woodland, complete with rolling fog—but both feature Bush, resplendent in a white dress in one, and a crimson one in the other, performing an interpretive dance routine she choreographed herself. It’s the latter that offers a richer visual impact and the full breadth of Bush’s performance. The camerawork here mirrors her sweeping movements, then closes in on her ultra-emotive mien and every pantomimic gesture. As Bush moves amid the breeze-swept green backdrop, the track’s romantic longing (“Let me in through your window”) is given full, breathtaking heft.
From a distance, the texture and movement of “Wuthering Heights” is far from polished or sophisticated. It is mildly dippy in places, but manages, with its rough edges, to introduce the raw sensuality that would go on to inform the rest of Bush’s oeuvre (also see “Moving”). As she remarked in 1985, “The essence of all art is sensuality. It’s a much more subtle form of expression.” That came later, though; for now, her sensuality is colored by a theatricality, in which could be discerned that unabashed desire to give her music physical form and visual language. Even in those rudimentary pirouettes, kicks, and gestures, her body creates images, throws shapes and shadows, conveys emotions—and she’s downright captivating for it.
Bush would go on to make more bare-boned and rough-hewn videos featuring her interpretative dancing—including “Them Heavy People” and “Hammer Horror”—culminating in the handsome “Running Up That Hill,” which came anchored by a lush, classical dance routine choreographed by Diane Grey. But “Wuthering Heights” remains her most celebrated piece: not for nothing has it been consistently cherished and parodied, and not for nothing do hundreds of people gather each year for The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever to recreate Bush’s video right down to the red stockings.
Again, there’s something to be said about the earnest yet evocative simplicity of the film’s choreography that has lent it instant appeal and enduring virality. That, ultimately, is Bush’s bestowal. Her routine, created for a song she wrote about a novel she saw on television, trails an excellent line of other artistic forms and articles—“You eat what you steal, digest it, and it becomes a part of you,” according to Bush. And after emerging from that fine heritage, “Wuthering Heights” repays its creative debts, laying down fertile ground for further interpretation and adaptation, and opening up whole new worlds of infinite expression.