When Grant Smeaton was working as a Saturday boy in Listen records in Glasgow in the early 1980s, he had access to music by artists he might not ordinarily have heard. One of these was Klaus Nomi, a shock-haired singer with a piercingly high voice, who fused post-punk performance art with operatic arias.
Thirty years on, Smeaton, in collaboration with choreographer Alan Greig, has created Do You Nomi?, a dance theatre homage to Nomi, who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1983 aged thirty-nine. As Smeaton explains, Nomi was a fascinating character, whose own performances were hugely theatrical.
“He just seemed to be part of this very different scene. It was a very fertile time, and you could be more avant-garde and experimental, which Reaganism and Thatcherism kind of knocked out. While it went on, Klaus was a fascinating, enigmatic character who was very much part of that.”
The idea for the show came from Smeaton's creative relationship with Greig. Smeaton had been drafted in as an actor to one of Greig's shows, while Greig had previously choreographed theatre shows which Smeaton had appeared in. Out of this, the pair decreed to work on a new piece that integrated both acting and dance disciplines. It was other shared experiences between the pair that influenced what the show would be about.
“We both grew up through the punk era, and then the new wave era,” Smeaton says. “That was our formative musical years, and we both loved Klaus Nomi. Even a lot of people from that time haven't heard of Klaus Nomi, but he was a gay man as well, and was one of the first people I'd ever heard of who contracted and died of AIDS. That was quite shocking at the time, when the plague label was becoming really powerful. Klaus died at a point when he was really starting to reach some kind of fame in his life, and it was a really fascinating story, but, because Klaus was so kind of abstract, that the abstraction of dance would fit really well with it. I don't think you could tell everybody's story through dance.”
Klaus Nomi was born in Bavaria in 1944, and in the 1960s worked as an usher at the Deutsch Opera in West Berlin as well as singing arias at gay discos. In 1972 Nomi moved to New York, where he became involved in the fecund East Village art scene, appearing onstage in a camp satire of Wagner's Das Rheingold.
In 1978, Nomi appeared in New Wave Vaudeville, a four-night event at which he sang an aria from Saint-Saens 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila while wearing a skin-tight space-suit with transparent plastic cape. The performance ended in a riot of smoke bombs and strobe lights, and led to dates in other clubs. At the suggestion of No Wave icon James Chance's manager, Nomi formed a band, which, in later incarnations featured artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in its ranks.
In 1979, Nomi appeared as backing singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live, performing Boys Keep Swinging and The Man Who Sold The World while dragging around the studio a prop pink poodle with a television set in its mouth. Despite releasing two albums, the nearest Nomi came to the mass consciousness in the UK was via an appearance in Urgh! A Music War, a documentary compendium of left-field acts of the era playing live. Nomi performed Total Eclipse in a sequence which was shown in full several times in highbrow rock show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Nomi's image and sense of self-invention pre-dated the likes of Boy George and performance artist Leigh Bowery, while also following in the footsteps of the grandest of dames, Quentin Crisp.
“The whole thing about Nomi's image was an escape from the threat of nuclear war,” Smeaton says, “and using fifties sci-fi imagery in the eighties. He was really like nothing on earth, but he was just this shy guy who happened to have this amazing voice.”
Do You Nomi? is Smeaton's latest exploration of pop culture icons. Whereas in Bette/Cavett and Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Smeaton played the title roles of Bette Davis and Benny Hill himself, here he and Greig have drafted in a full cast, with Smeaton directing.
“I'm too old to play Klaus,” Smeaton jokes, “so we've hot two actors dancing, and two dancers acting, with one playing Klaus. With all of these stories, I'm not just looking at a person. I'm looking at a whole period of history. With Bette, it was all about that whole interview set-up at the time, while Benny Hill was I suppose more autobiographical, but I think telling a person's story can tell a lot about the period they lived through, and how their lives changed. They're all people who fascinate me. I used to go about with eye-liner on, and I suppose try to be like Klaus, but he pushed things further than anyone.”
Do You Nomi?, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 20-21, then tours
The Herald, February 19th 2013