A 12th century troubadours travels to the 20th century.
Choreography and Direction – John Kelly
Music – Richard Peaslee
Lyrics – Mark Campbell
Music Direction – Roberto Pace
Set Design – Huck Snyder
Costume Design – Donna Zakowska
Lighting Design – Howell Binkley
Film Sequences – Anthony Chase
Performers – Peter Becker, Kyle de Camp, John Kelly, Larry Malvern, Marleen Menard and Vivian Trimble
Presented by La Mama E.T.C., Music-Theater Group, and John Kelly Performance at LaMaMa, ETC, March 1992
Damon Wright, Where Hope And Death Dwell Together, The New York Times, February 23, 1992
John Kelly gets huffy when his work is called musical theater. “It makes me think of ‘Brigadoon,’ ” he says. “I don’t do ‘Brigadoon.’ ” Yet he has been using the elements of musical theater — a little song, a little dance, a little high drama — since the end of the 70’s, when he lip-synched to Maria Callas singing “Carmen.” This was at the Anvil, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village, popular before the time of AIDS.
Not that John Kelly was ever just another drag queen. Even then he was a performance artist. Except, he also gets a little huffy at the phrase performance art. “Sometimes I call myself a performance artist,” he said. But then sometimes he doesn’t. What John Kelly is is a theater artist in his mid-30’s from Jersey City. He was trained as a painter and a dancer and possesses what a Times critic called a “pungent countertenor.” As a performer and director he has created theater works that, while defying categorization, have been praised by critics. They include “Find My Way Home” (1888), a movement-oriented tale of Orpheus, and “Love of a Poet” (1990), based on a Schumann song cycle in which he adopts the persona of a melancholy bard. Most recently he is the creator of “Akin,” the story of two troubadors — father and son — which opens tonight at the La Mama Annex. The piece has original music by Richard Peaslee, who is best known for his collaborations with the director Peter Brook. The lyricist is Mark Campbell, and the team was assembled by the producer Lyn Austin of the Music-Theater Group. “Akin” supports Mr. Kelly’s contention that he is “a romantic in this most unromantic time.” It is set in an idealized medieval era where the troubador sings only of love. When death shatters that world, the troubador’s son leaves home, only to find, in a confounding of time, a world of even more death — our own 1992.
“My first friend died in 1981,” Mr. Kelly says. He takes for granted the language of his time: AIDS is understood. All of his work, he says, is informed by the rage engendered by (he disease:” Akin’ is about what it’s like living now.” For him that means continuing a “quest for love,” even while seized with anger; trying “not to become numb” to the dying; and keeping alive “the desire to survive and work and affect things.” John Kelly in his theater piece “Akin,” opening tonight at the La Mama Annex—A romantic in an un-romantic time.
Mel Gussow, A Medieval Troubadour Is Brought To The Present, The New York Times, February 25, 1992
In his haunting new musical play, “Akin” (at La Mama Annex), John Kelly brings to life the world of the medieval troubadour, then, through a split-frame narrative, moves his story centuries ahead into our present. In characteristic Kelly fashion, he unifies mime, modern dance, music and music-hall variety into a living tableau of images.
Mr. Kelly is one of the most intensely personal of performance artists even as his subjects range widely in classical history and mythology. Through his alchemic art, he manages to identify himself with figures as disparate as Egon Schiele (in “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte”), Orpheus and the Mona Lisa. Each becomes an extension of the tragic poet personality he projects on stage.
In his new collaborative venture, he has surrounded himself with familiar co-workers, including actors from his company, Huck Snyder as scenic designer and Anthony Chase as film maker, while also drawing upon the combined creativity of Richard Peas-lee as composer and Mark Campbell as lyricist. This musical team underlines “Akin” with a score that moves between periods as easily as the author does. The music is alternately rhapsodic and mournful; the lyrics have a poetic inventiveness. A few more songs would add further fluidity to the show.
The episodic nature of the work allows for the insertion and the occasional intrusion of diverse scenes and songs. Although the show itself could be more cohesive, individual moments are lustrous. A co-production with Lyn Austin’s Music-Theater Group, “Akin” is scheduled to run at La Mama through March 8th. The troubadour (Peter Becker) begins by contemplating his muse, naked behind a scrim on Mr. Snyder’s dreamlike stage within a stage. When Mr. Becker reaches out toward the woman, the scrim becomes opaque. In such a manner, the play moves back and forth between the tangible and the unattainable. Soon the play is filled with buoyant humor as the troubadour’s children enter, dancing on their knees.
They are Mr. Kelly’s vaudeville equivalent of Bunraku puppets and puppeteers, cleverly disguised in double-image costumes. When the child played by Mr. Kelly grows up, he rises to his feet and shares center stage with his domineering theatrical father. While the father sings of his exuberant days as a trouper, his son is concerned with loss and self-denial. As with most of the author’s shows, “Akin” is at least partly a collage, consolidating images from afar. The furthest in this case is Joan of Arc. Marleen Menard appears bound at the stake to sing a comic lament in the style of Edith Piaf. Strange ‘ though it may sound, the song encourages the thought that the single scene could be expanded into its own chamber musical. The show leads to the sorrowful moment when Mr. Kelly, as a gaunt modern-day troubadour, comments on AIDS without ever mentioning the subject. “Eleven years and counting,” he sings in his delicate countertenor voice. In common with Ms. Menard’s St. Joan, he refuses to despair. In its coda. “Akin” becomes an elegiac musical affirmation of life and of love.
Goings On About Town, The New Yorker, March 1992
OVER the past five years, John Kelly has shaped his performance pieces around a variety of subjects, but almost all of them—Orpheus, Egon Schiele, Joni Mitchell—may be said to share at least one thing: they peaked young. Perhaps fearing that such morbid choices have cast him as an incurable romantic, Kelly has created a slightly less melancholy mood for his new work. In “Akin” (La Mama; through March 8), he drapes his tall, lithe figure in troubadour’s garb and bathes his piercing countertenor voice in medieval melodies. And he uses parables (the Prodigal Son) and themes (the transformative power of gifts) that are even older than the Middle Ages. He hasn’t quite expunged his romantic side, however. Early stirrings of genius still preoccupy him, as do premature deaths. “We’re too young to be so old,” Kelly muses in a tender love song with overt reference to our own age, the age of AIDS. At the end of his hour-long piece, which incorporates film, dance, and nine musicians and stage performers (all good), Kelly’s AIDS motif has become an angry litany. “Eleven years and counting,” he intones to tumbrel-rhythmed accompaniment. For a better sense of all this, imagine a tremulous, tonsured Larry Kramer. Or, more to the point, since the music here is by Richard Peaslee, imagine “Marat, we’re poor” with timely lyrics.
“Akin” was co-produced by Music-Theatre Group, and it is not without some of the pretentiousness, the aimless fervor, that often besets that organization’s productions (“Miracolo d’Amore,” “The Hunger Artist”). But for the most part Kelly shies away from self-indulgence. Just when you think a stage picture has been held too long, he gracefully shifts the tableau. He seems to know that, in a season when the theatre is brimming with AIDS-related work, he must, as he says, keep his “grief brief.”
Deborah Jowitt, Silence And Stillness, The Village Voice, March 8, 1992
In his remarkable performance pieces, John Kelly has often associated himself with doomed artists: Egon Schiele, Robert Schumann. Orpheus. In Akin, he is a nameless troubadour whose career begins in the Middle Ages, but who, with adulthood, is catapulted into the 20th century. His troubadour father (Peter Becker) can sing of love that will last forever, while his wife-to-be (Vivian Trimble) postures sweetly in the nude behind a scrim. But Kelly, the grown son, sings for a later time, for a new society that has had to train itself to be hard and places no faith in religious homilies (“Love, if you die, I’ll fight the urge to sing a dirge”).
As a child, Kelly adores his father: he stands in the background, enthralled, while Dad sings a highly bawdy song to an audience (us), and then Kelly endearingly tries his squeaky voice out on the scurrilous lines. But when the son embarks on a pansexual lifestyle (two women touching one another’s breasts, a tableau of group sex, his son kissing another man?), the father descends in a rage from a chair that’s been suspended high above the stage. In a filmed prologue (by Anthony Chase), we’ve seen the father in his medieval robes set coins on a train track to be flattened. He believes that by dropping these into a clanging pail, he can erase what he doesn’t like and replay it. But he can’t change his son’s life or the era he has to live in: and in the end father and son embrace.
There are many beautiful and imaginative scenes. Those of childhood (as in Kelly’s 1991 Maybe It’s Cold Outside) are the most coherent, the most bewitching. Larry Malvern, Marleen Menard and Kyle de Camp walk on their knees, stuffed child-bodies attached to their chests. Father wants another son and drops coin after coin to make the three little ones waddle excitedly to help Mama, who’s spreading her legs in anguish. A daughter (pink dummy) and dead twins (white dummies) are rejected. Finally a son (blue dummy) appears. Later there are celebratory dances and a meal at a long table with Latin song. All of Kelly’s colleagues are wonderful, but he is beyond-all wonderful at the tiny nuances of expression and gesture that reveal the shy but gleeful child. And the moment when, at the death of a sister, he detaches his child-self and stands for the first time is tremendously moving.
Huck Snyder’s subtle set, which hints at rafters and a vaulted ceiling in the first part of Akin, comes to resemble the girders of a bleak cityscape when Kelly leaves home. In this landscape, everything happens in bizarre flashes. Kelly lies with a woman (de Camp) who leaves him. In the back-ground, people traverse a neat field of apples—spearing them, eating them. Joan of Arc (Menard) is presented as an icon of non-conformism (cross-dressing, among other things) and sings a splendid torch song (get it?) in the shudderingly dramatic style of Edith Piaf (“Le flames vont me devorer”).
Kelly comes to grips with the modern plague, AIDS, in a song that he sings now in baritone, now in his soaring countertenor, allowing it to crack with the strain of such lines as “We’re too young to be so old” and “Eleven years and counting,” which Richard Peaslee has given the inexorable tolling of a bell. The Peaslee/Campbell song, like a few of the others, has a slightly too facile sentimentalism, but who can quibble with the message that Kelly, this brilliant minstrel of our day, has a duty to sing it out?
John Gruen, John Kelly: Notes From The Underground–The Performance Artist Unveils His Latest Work In February At La Mama Annex In Manhattan, Dance Magazine, February 1992
Ouietly and most deservedly, John Kelly— dancer, choreographer, singer, actor, director—is well on his way to becoming the country’s most compellingly original performance artist.
It would be hard to imagine anyone else taking on a Robert Schumann song cycle (Dichterliebe, op. 48) and—by way of singing it, acting it out, and moving to it—making it the subject of an evening-length reverie on the entire German romantic revolution. Nor could anyone but Kelly visibly become the tortured artist Egon Schiele, as he did in his startling Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, turning that life into an uncanny lesson in angst and verisimilitude.
From February 19 to March 8 at La MaMa Annex in New York City, Kelly offers an elaborate performance piece on the subject of medieval troubadours, those lyric poets and poet-musicians who wrote of love and chivalry in a time of slaughters and plagues. The work, tentatively titled Troubadour, will reflect Kelly’s own recent year of terror, during which he witnessed the death of a sister, the grave illness of his father, and the death, from AIDS, of a close friend. Co-produced with the Music and Theatre Group, it will be a full-ensemble piece, with original music by Richard Peaslee (a frequent collaborator with Martha Clarke), sets by Huck Snyder, and film by Anthony Chase.
Troubadour joins an impressive list of works conceived, directed, and performed by Kelly, including Go West Junger Mann, The Dagmar Onassis Story, Long Live the Knife, Paved Paradise, Born with the Moon in Cancer, Diary of a Somnambulist, Ode To a Cube, Maybe It’s Cold Outside, and Find My Way Home (Kelly’s complex and melancholy retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which Met Gussow of the New York Times called “unlike any other one has seen”). For some of these the artist has received two Bessie Awards (1986 and 1988), a 1987 Obie Award, a 1987 American Choreographer Award, and a 1989 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Kelly was a member of the 1990 National Panel of the Inter-Arts Program, a division of the National Endowment for the Arts. Last year he applied for and received a choreographic fellowship from the endowment—a happy sign in view of that agency’s chilling flirtation with censorship.
In performance, Kelly is all sense and sensibility. Quite apart from his darkly intense, matinee-idol looks (actually, his appearance is such that he can transform himself into man, woman, child, or beast seemingly at will), Kelly suggests the poignant nostalgic of a silent-film close-up in which the hero or heroine, bathed in a flickering glow of lights, registers any number of emotions simultaneously. Indeed, as critic Dennis Cooper, writing in the New York Native, so aptly put it, “Kelly is the only performer I know who can convey tragedy, slapstick and an abstract lightness through a single gesture. It’s such a pleasure to watch him work that it would be tempting to suspend critical involvement entirely, if not for his wealth of ideas and the relevance they acquire in his care.”
When, in October 1990, Kelly presented his Love of a Poet, based on the Schumann cycle (a setting of sixteen poems of Heinrich Heine), he unveiled the piece at the Battery Maritime Building at the tip of Manhattan, a space that, through large windows, affords viewers the sight of the harbor with ferries crossing silently to and fro. In front of this maritime spectacle, Kelly, the sole performer, aided by designer Snyder, lighting man Stan Pressner, costumer Hebe Joy, and musical director and accompanist Femando Torm-Toha, offered the agony and the ecstasy of German romanticism and its preoccupation with despair, tears, sorrow, pain, and unrequited love—not one moment of it either campy or tongue in cheek.
“The imagery of the piece—the movements, the scenario, the set, the props, everything—came out of the Schumann songs and the words of the poems he set,” says Kelly. “What I love so much about Schumann is that the moment a song begins, a whole atmosphere is released. It’s so amazing! The words contain references not only to feelings but to things in nature: to flowers, to earth, to sky, to sea, and, of course—endlessly—to love.
“In preparing the piece, I read a lot of the German romantic literature, including Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and lots of Heine. I looked at the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and I went back to my own romantic period, when, some fifteen years ago, I walked around with long hair, starched collars, and bows. So, for Love of a Poet, I immersed myself in a time when artists were just flinging themselves into the abyss of their lives. But all I really wanted to do was to illustrate the music.”
And this Kelly did, in a beautifully modulated counter-tenor (he spent part of a year-long stay in Europe during 1989-90 studying voice with the notorious vocal teacher and coach Peter Elkus at the Academia Musicale Ottorino Respighi in Assisi, Italy), singing the words in impeccable German and, during each song, subtly enacting the subject of the texts. What proved spellbinding was that this was neither a song recital, a chamber opera, a monodrama, nor an intellectual gloss on the meaning of Sturm und Drang; rather, it was a true performance piece in which disparate theatrical and musical elements (including a projected “silent” film created by Chase) combined to form dreamlike images of arresting power. With the moodiness of the dark water and the gliding black boats beyond, the effect was a supra-romanticism touched by the eeriness of surrealism.
Kelly was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on September 21, 1959. The middle child of an Irish-Catholic family, he has two older sisters and two younger brothers.
“I was a shy, very internalized child,” he says. “I used to go and sit in closets—just to get away. I was quite happy to be alone, to be solitary, to draw, paint, make things. I was a good student in school but not fanatically so. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school—it was a middle-class Christian Brothers high school, with lots of Italian and Polish and Irish peers. It was a sobering experience.
“Often, I’d travel to New York to see performances. My first ballet was Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’s Firebird with Gelsey Kirkland at New York City Ballet. Gelsey was just seventeen. I was very lucky to have seen that as my first exposure to dance, and because of it I wanted to become a ballet dancer.”
Following Kelly’s graduation from high school, he moved to New York City and received a scholarship for ballet training at the American Ballet Theatre’s School of Classical Ballet. Working with Leon Danielian and Patricia Wilde, it soon became clear that at age seventeen it was physically too late to embark on a ballet career. Still, Kelly persevered, training both at the ABT school and the Harkness Ballet School. In time, he danced briefly with the modern dance company of Charles Weidman and at the American Theater Lab.
“I gave it my all,” he says. “Finally, I grew tired of being frustrated and quit. I was twenty-one. I then decided to study fashion illustration and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, eventually switching to the fine arts department to study painting with Larry Rivers and Barbara Pearlman. I was now twenty-three and living in the East Village—destitute, but painting. To survive, I went back to Parsons as a model for the drawing and painting classes, and that was my reintroduction to being in front of people, which I really liked.”
Through the late seventies and early eighties, Kelly became a part of the East Village underground, drifting into wildly active club scenes, “dabbling,” as he puts it, “with drugs,” and existing on next to no money. “I remember at one point literally starving for a day and a half and saying, ‘This is ridiculous!’
“I always knew that someday I would do something— and do it to my satisfaction. It was just a question of deciding what that ‘something’ was going to be.”
As it turned out, Kelly became a club and cabaret entertainer. His first sorties into the genre entailed lip-synching operatic arias (as sung by, among others, Maria Callas), choreographing them, and embellishing them with backup singers in outrageous drag.
“It was intoxicating, because it made me realize how much I loved performing. The other part of it was assuming another gender. It wasn’t so much about wanting to be a woman as seeing how differently people react to you when you’re dressed like a woman. You really learn something about women and about human nature. Anyway, for me it was disguise—a way to reintroduce myself into performing.”
Doing weekly shows at places like the Mudd Club and the Pyramid Club, Kelly enlarged his repertoire by devising pieces around such ornate male characters as Narcissus, Saint Sebastian, and Orpheus. A short version of his Egon Schiele piece and his invention of a character called Dagmar Onassis (“She’s the illegitimate child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis,” says Kelly) brought him some long-sought attention from the press.
“I was dying to do my pieces at the Kitchen or at Dance Theater Workshop, but those places weren’t available to me then. So I did my things at clubs at one o’clock in the morning! Finally, in 1984, I did a thirty-five-minute version of the Schiele piece, which I called Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, and the press started paying some attention. I also began performing with a theater group called Tweed Ensemble and showed my pieces at St. Mark’s Church and at P. S. 122. So the work and the pieces just grew and grew—I worked constantly. Finally, in 1987, I had a breakthrough period. Dance Theater Workshop showed my full-length Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, and I toured with it and I got a lot of very good press.”
Kelly maintains that he doesn’t really know the precise meaning of the term “performance art.” He says that since he considers himself an artist who makes performances, he assumes that the result could be called performance art.
“There’s a whole creative precedence for this type of presentation,” he explains. “There were the Happenings of the 1960s created by people like Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow. But I don’t know if I came out of that, because my stuff is more about craft and texture, it’s not so much about leaving things open to fate or the moment or the climate of the room—although I value those things.
“As far as my own stuff is concerned, the performance people think it’s too theatrical, and the theater people think it doesn’t have anything to do with theater, because my pieces have no words in them—they’re not plays.
“I’d say my work is more in the operatic tradition— about telling a story through music and movement—but also of creating another effect on top of all that’s operatic. I like making up stories, and I’m fed by music and by atmosphere. My aim is to find the most effective solutions to the portrayal of something or someone. I’m really fascinated by making people onstage intermingle but doing it without words—like Antony Tudor’s work. I love creating a psychological atmosphere—that wonderful clashing of strong feelings and mad passions!”
Daniel Mendelsohn, We Are Family: John Kelly’s Structures of Kinship at LaMaMa, NYQ March 29, 1992
John Kelly looks like something out of a Caravaggio canvas. High light and strong shadows map the beautiful, haunted landscape of his face, which is improbably boyish; from the dramatic geography great, dark eyes stare out at you, at once challenging and vulnerable. It’s a face that’s made for the stage. Like those of other great stage presences (Callas, Judith Anderson, Mick Jagger), Kelly’s features—the precipitous arcs and hollows of cheek, brow, jaw; the wounded eyes; the mobile mouth—seem slightly exaggerated by daylight. But they catch the limelight perfectly. When Kelly’s onstage, as he has been for most of the past decade, from Assisi to Astor Place, in everything from Wigstock to opera, you can’t take your eyes off of him. You can see the theater’s high emotions running over and through him, like clear water coursing over sculpted bedrock. The emotional poles so nakedly staked out on Kelly’s face—the bruised adolescent seriousness as well as impish provocativeness—are reflected in the equally broad range of structures and themes of his latest theater piece, Akin, which recently closed at La Mama (which is, tragically, itself in danger of closing). In it, Kelly, as the son of a 12th-century troubadour, takes his father’s art, as well as his own potent countertenor, from the Middle Ages to the present, seeking to salve the open wounds of our own driven era with the balm of song. Even as it closes, with a strident condemnation of the cynicism and indifference that contributes to the AIDS crisis. Akin reminds us that our humanity is only fully realized through our relations to others—the “kinship” to which the work’s title refers.
Everything about Akin mirrors its daring chronological leap from Medieval to Modern; the piece careens stylistically, too, from high seriousness in the first part to purest camp in the second. It’s a daring gamble that doesn’t always pay off. Like, say, the triparite organization of Todd Haynes’ film Poison, where structure and narrative unity were subordinated to a larger thematic unity that addressed many of the same issues as does Akin, the ideas more abstractly appealing than its execution is dramatically successful. But performance art is inherently more “conceptual” than film, and the division between Akin’s two halves doesn’t, after all, seriously mar it. You only sense the flawed parts in Kelly’s work because most of it succeeds so well. Akin is, appropriately enough, less theater than pageant; the tableaux of the troubadour father’s life that make up the first part (strikingly lit by Howell Binkley and imaginatively designed by Huck Snyder) proceed with the stiff archaic grandeur of a medieval liturgy. There’s always a glimmer of wit, though—you can feel Kelly giggling sometimes. When you first see the Wife (Vivian Trimble, in Donna Zabrowska’s perfect costume), she looks uncannily like one of those swell-bellied, self-satisfied Virgins that you see in Northern European religious paintings of the early Renaissance; only when she suddenly staggers and limps to a bed do you realize that she really is pregnant, and she gives birth, in swift succession, to a series of pink dolls, until she finally produces a blue one—the boy that grows up to be Kelly. There’s a fun birthday party, too—the family furniture is wittily crenelated—interrupted by what may be a holy Epiphany; and we see Father (Peter Becker, an imposing and sonorous presence) at work, entertaining an anonymous crowd with bawdy doggerel, paid in bags of gold. Suddenly, one of the children dies; a scene of family grief follows. The Wife rocks silently back and forth over the tiny figure, as strong lights go up and then black out, over and over. For all that it was wordless, this scene was pure opera—a breathtakingly beautiful and moving stage-picture that transcended the need for any naturalistic representation of emotion. It exemplified what’s best about Kelly’s theatrical vision—what William Christie, who has made a career of recreating early French opera, called “the high stylization that releases rather than restrains emotions.” Kelly, who has previously explored the possibilities of drag, intuitively understands Christie’s ostensible paradox. The first half of Akin works better than the second precisely because it has the courage of its own stylized convictions. You sense that it was the medieval stuff that really fired Kelly’s imagination to begin with, giving rein to his historical and, even more, to his musical fancy. (The music, by Richard Peaslee with lyrics by Mark Campbell, artfully conjures the plaintive harmonies of early music without sounding merely derivative.) The climactic moment of the first part combines both: You get to see the Son learn his troubadour Father’s art, at first imitating and later competing with him, as the two engage in an escalating vocal fencing bout that flashes not with steel but with glittering cascades of runs, trills and roulades. The exultant vocal braggadaccio of both Father and Son is like something out of Fellini, an entertaining but ultimately crucial demonstration that the impulse to create (or to perform) is embedded in our emotional connections to others.
Robert Greskovic, Dance and AIDS: Shrill Tantrums, Dance USA Journal, Spring 1992
The numerous dance concerts I have sat through in which the issue and/or subject of AIDS has been addressed are now more or less reduced to a blur. Shrill tantrums, pathetic diaries, lengthy litanies and uncertain points of view variously turn well-meaning efforts into ill-conceived visual theater. Sometimes I learn after the tedium of such an event that a particular participant has recently been diagnosed HIV-positive, or worse. Such private information elicits private thoughts of sympathy but it cannot essentially affect my public thoughts on the work itself. Or, at least, ideally should not. Sometimes the sympathetic response to such personal factors leads me to just say nothing, to let the lame work born of fervent intentions pass without comment. I have yet to see a dance in which the entity of the horrid AIDS epidemic and the power of a unique art form mesh and make a potent work of theater. I stress “dance” in order to distinguish one body of work from another that might focus on additional theatrical forms. The so-called “performance” pieces that take on this same subject have occasionally managed, given their more varied means, to create stronger effect. Actually this sub-species of dance has its own large share of theatrical failures, all the more unfortunate since the “anything goes” factor opens wide the avenues for success. But, I am straying from the point of AIDS and dance works. Every critic knows there are no rules to art, and every perceptive critic knows that there are limitations on art forms. Dance, the art form I am committed to, remains as special for what it can. as well as for what it cannot, inherently do. Critical responsibility demands that I view every dance with regard not only to its particulars but also to its historical lineage. While it is never the business of the critic to suggest to artists what should, and there-fore, by default, what should not, be-come the subject/aim of their work, it is likewise unreasonable of the artist to assume a sympathetic response to a work simply because the viewer should be sympathetic to its subject has been my experience that dance, like “music,” in a now-famous quote of Igor Stravinsky’s, “can ex-press nothing but itself.” As Isadora Duncan found cause to stress at the turn of the century, “dance comes in at the eye,” making it decidedly a visual art For Balanchine, “Ballet is not intellectual, it’s visual. Ballet has to be seen. It’s like a beautiful flower. What can you say about a beautiful flower? All you can say is that it’s beautiful.” Addressing what might be shown with dancing, Balanchine further stated: “I like stories. For instance, I always go to movie mysteries. I like westerns very much. That is not the same as ballet, however. Ballet shouldn’t illustrate anything.” Addressing the idea of illustrated meaning and choreography in 1975, Arlene Croce suggested that in the “imaginative world we enter when we go to the ballet,” our inability to formulate set meanings from provocative details “only strengthens their power to affect us.” Further along in her same essay of analysis, after recognizing that there are people “who prefer acting to dancing—who like ballets that make you think,” she flatly says: “I never saw a good ballet that made me think. “The crucial and illuminating part of that final statement, after you read it more than once, is “made.” If a dance image aims to make or to force you to think specifically beyond the dance moment itself, it essentially stops wielding kinetic power and starts appearing to your intellectual abilities. At best such formal moments become workable pantomime, at worst they become two-bit illustration. In neither case are they operating as dance modes. As a catch-as-catch-can, free-lance critic, I largely have the option mentioned earlier of remaining silent in the face of certain well-meaning but at best sentimental dance showing all too frequently flagged with extraneous hearts on their sleeves. If I had a regular beat, and was committed to report on all that I was assigned to see, I’d owe it to my readers and to the history of dance to identify the inconsequence built about a most consequential subject. I’d be bound to say when a melancholy dance for two men, say to some penetrating piece of Mozart, is a lame and awkward affair no matter how deeply felt its creation means to be. (Writing in The New York Times on March 22,1992 about issues related to those discussed here, Jennifer Dunning perceptively noted: ‘Today, almost all dances for men are interpreted as alluding to AIDS, whether the choreographer meant to or not”) Essentially, works that wish to be “more than dance,” especially on a subject like AIDS, end up appealing to the brain and forgetting that the eye they enter sees before it reads. If what I see is poorly made, my reading is based on that, and not the “emotion-stirring” aspect otherwise implied.
Recently, however, I was strongly motivated to analyze and admire a dance/theater creation for its artful efforts against the odds mentioned here, when actor/singer/dancer John Kelly presented Akin, a collaborative work in which the arts of lyrical theater combined to powerful effect. Readily finding myself in the thrall of this creation, which because of its prominent text and acting dimensions did not qualify as a dancing show even while its direction had the finesse of choreography, I was given pause to contemplate what it was that Kelly had managed to accomplish and that others had fallen short of. Those others, it seemed to me, could even include Kelly himself. His previous work, Maybe It’s Cold Outside, tried to deal with what resembled a plague issue—Kelly’s character acquired a painful-looking redness in the course of the work—and ended up an intriguing but confused portrayal of various, eccentric individuals. Akin, however, took as its focus not the individual stricken by disease but an artist struck by the tragedy of a disease-plagued, and somewhat diseased, society. The work’s central subject is that of the troubadour, the singing poet whose origins in the Middle Ages are recalled in a presentation of a young man’s life that moves forward into our own time. The journey is plainly choreographed as much as it is directed, but the production’s sensibility is consistently one of provocative visual theater. The AIDS aspect of Akin comes into the proceedings late. It arises full force in the work’s climactic song. Before it bursts indelibly forth as the menace everyone in the audience knows it to be, the deadly specter has only been hinted at. A child is stricken ill, perhaps by a medieval plague, and dies; self-righteous, implacable churchmen (shown imposingly large in film sequence) pass damning judgement on citizens unacceptably different from them. The Kelly character, identified only as the “Son,” whose “Father” is also a troubadour, arrives at the work’s contemporary subject by way of some-times amusing, sometimes dark episodes. These describe rites of artistic, familial and sexual passage. The scene that brings AIDS to the surface takes the form of the troubadour’s most elaborate song/poem. The number pulls no ‘punches, identifying the plague of AIDS not by name but by unmistakable signs and statistics: “11 years and counting”; “There’s no relief in sight/Close your eyes and say good night/So many deaths untolled/We’re too young to be so old.” Entitled To A Friend Dying by its creators (composer Richard Peaslee and lyricist Mark Campbell), the song pours forth from a powerful and proud poet whose art is as lyrical as it is lethal. The aria’s particular title is not, wisely I think, given in the program. Instead, the song occurs seemingly spontaneously, as the personal art of Son/Kelly, who, by stance, vocal production and simple gesture, gives flight to its powerful sentiments. Those emotions and observations are so wrought as to address the undeniable tragedy of our time, all the while rising above the level of individual complaint. With his arms out-spread, Kelly’s troubadour casts a wide net, shaming the righteous, fingering the heartless, and sending sweet, loving words to the stricken. As denouement to Akin, Father (Peter Becker) and Son sing a duet about being artists. Some of their harmonized ruminations concern the matter and mystery of their art: “It’s an ugly business this arranging crimes/Into perfect couplets fit with pretty rhymes/And the truest words that rattle off your tongue/Might be better screeched than sweetly sung.” The stress on “screeched” is shrill of voice and tense of body, but it’s isolated. The two men resume their sweet singing to conclude the piece with observations the one gives the other and both give to us: “Would you like some sure advice?/ I’ve none to give/Only that we don’t destroy it/It must live.” And out of an iridescent theatrical journey, shaded with shining wit and stinging bite—including that one vociferous blast of rage— the leading players emerge gravely, warmly and indelibly. While realistically bereft of advice, they remain steadfastly clinging to the life of their art. Akin is by no means unique for its inclusion of non-dance ingredients within a work of choreographed theater. Watching it, I sometimes felt that Kelly’s confidence was so sure he could have included further, formal dance dimensions and still kept his sights on his subject. But its success as rich visual theater and inspired poetic presentation of a painful and emotional situation is singular. Knowing when to spell things out and call upon words is part of the reason for Akin’s power. Indicating AIDS itself, without spelling it out, is perhaps another. More clues to its mysteries and beauties will likely result from further acquaintance. The ultimate key will probably not. It will remain locked in the instinct and craft of its creators.
Robert Greskovic has been writing about dance since 1972 and is lately quite dismayed by the equating of aesthetics with politics. He is the associate editor o/New Dance Review and has written for the New York Native, Los Angeles Tunes, Village Voice and Ballet Review.
Jennifer Dunning, Choreographing Deaths Of The Heart In A Singular Age, The New York Times, March 22, 1992
Toward the end of his new performance piece “Akin,” John Kelly moves to the front of the stage, spreads his arms and begins with a song that might be the haunting — and haunted — anthem of the age of AIDS. “You go on ahead,” Mr. Kelly sings in that eerie countertenor of his, so artificial yet so unadorned. “I’ll catch up with you.”
The chorus of the song, which is called “To a Friend Dying,” speaks of “11 years and counting,” referring to the time that has passed since the disease first surfaced and since Mr. Kelly first lost a friend to AIDS. “There’s no hope in sight./ Close your eyes and say good night./ So many deaths un-tolled./ We’re too young to be so old./ And all of us are innocent.” The song is followed by a succession of wordless embraces and kisses exchanged in a tangle of five people. They are childlike exchanges freighted, these 11 years later, with an angry edge of mockery and the hopefulness that resides in defiance. In “Akin,” which was performed earlier this month at La Mama, Mr. Kelly and his creative collaborators told a sometimes confusing tale about a prodigal son and wandering medieval troubadour, a metaphoric story that wound up in the present. What stood out about the song (the lyrics of which were written by Mark Campbell) and the images that followed it were an eloquence and power that are relatively new in dance and performance art about AIDS.
Perhaps it has taken 11 years to come to artistic terms with the subject of AIDS and its omnipresence. But with the growing number of dance and performance pieces addressing the illness, there has been a disturbing espousal of political rhetoric and feel-good sentimentality rather than direct confrontation with the way AIDS has colored even the minutiae of our lives. The subject of AIDS has become so entwined with the politics of sexuality that, in reflecting upon the subject, one instinctively tends to start with the comparatively few expressions of gay sexuality in the dance of a decade or so ago. John Bernd, who died of AIDS in 1988, was one of the earliest New York choreographers to treat gay sexuality and the disease explicitly. In retrospect, his portraits of men loving men had a gently exalted, almost whispered sweetness to them. With the male duet in Lar Lubovilch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two,” an excerpt performed at the “Dancing for Life” AIDS benefit in 1987, it was established that the stage, at least, was a safe place for same-sex lovers to hold hands.
Men’s dance then took on an earthier, gutsier personality. Stephen Petronio’s witty, high-energy choreography for men comes readily to mind. For the performing duo of Terry Creach and Stephen Koester, dance for men can range from a look at the quality of a relationship, in Remy Charlip’s “Following You,” to the dueling, pulsing fists and bodies of “Street Talk,” a duet choreographed by Jane Comfort. Today, almost all dances for men are interpreted as alluding to AIDS, whether the choreographer meant to or not. Was that pounding, bone-crunching embrace a cry of defiance? Was that cradling of a body the support of a loved one in death? Are those embracing men doomed lovers or simply followers of Robert Ely? But a disturbing overlay of reactive politics is creeping into dance— the politics of “us” and “them,” so eerily like bigots’ talk of differences, and the vision of illness and of being “different” as somehow sanctifying. Mark Dendy’s “Back Back” is a case in point, with its shower of pink triangles and its spoken litany of names of those who have died of AIDS, these days a seemingly obligatory public response to the epidemic. “Back Back” was presented in January at the “Altogether Different” festival at the Joyce Theater. But the memory of the dance that has lingered most strongly is the devastating way Mr. Dendy communicated the terror of being young and being pan of a profession that has been struck in a particularly cruel way by AIDS.
By now it has become an undisputed fact that AIDS does not discriminate. People in all walks of life are potentially at risk. But dance is a physical art with a short career span. Dancers tend, of necessity, to be young, and their work demands an intense physical camaraderie. Illness and mortality, so much beyond the experience of the young, have become a part of dancers’ daily lives. Mr. Dendy and his performers captured that horror in the incessant rush of “Back Back. ” To keep moving — to keep remembering, they seemed to say, to keep talking — is to stay alive. And so the dancers become frantically moving targets.
This unrhetorical focusing on the realities of everyday life and how they are transformed by the new reality of AIDS makes “Back Back” effective in a way that cuts straight to the heart of the subject. There is the rush of Mr. Dendy’s preternaturally aging children, scrambling toward their destiny. In Mr. Kelly’s “Akin,” the simple ordinariness of his song and the embraces has much to do with their power. And earlier and memorably, there was Rachel Lampert’s look at the pain of silence between friends in her “Inventory 1990,” presented two years ago at Dance Theater Workshop.
Ms. Lamport did not deal with the illness itself or with survival in the piece, which was dedicated to T. J. Meyers, a longtime friend and colleague who had died of AIDS earlier that year. Instead, she focused on the way AIDS came between her heroine, Rachel, the director of a dance troupe, and Toby, one of Rachel’s dancers, whom she counts as the dearest of her friends.
A chain of phone calls ran like a threnody through the evening-length work, which was crammed with details about Jewish family life and the nuts and bolts of running a dance company. We heard only Rachel’s muted-responses, but it was clear that each call was about the death from AIDS of yet one more friend. Then she suffered another, more immediate loss when Toby left for a new job tar away. The audience knew he was very ill.” Rachel’s subsequent stunned discovery of his death was no less shocking for that. Toby’s silence — his refusal to share that one important fact of his life with so close a friend — had all the tragedy of Athol Fugard’s apartheid-torn friendships, unlikely as the comparison may seem.
Silence does equal death here. The death is one of the heart, a minor detail in a landscape of pain but a detail that nonetheless embraces all the world. Small worlds — of a dying friend, a quick kiss, a mundane dance rehearsal and news left unspoken — can make large dances.
John Yohahem, Time-Travelling Troubadour: Performer John Kelly Has Endless Facades and Talents To Display, The Advocate, 1992
“The best way to get them is when they’re not expecting something to happen” says performer John Kelly on grabbing an audience’s attention. “You get them, and then you whammy them. Or pull a booby trap, But you have to seduce them first.”
Kelly is a trial to those who prefer pigeonholes Performer is perhaps the most neutral word to apply to this multi-talented artist. Critics have called him everything from our Cocteau” to an eclectic original” for his skill at mingling and crosscutting between opera and pop, dance and film, parody and ritual. Aside from pieces such as Find My Way Home, in which the legend of Orpheus is set in a speakeasy, Kelly is also known for his recitals of arias and lieder. He sings beautifully in several registers but is known to interrupt the concert by removing his shoes and pouring neat piles of dirt out of them onto the stage.
Kelly’s ambitious new piece, Akin, takes off from the culture of the medieval troubadours to explore growing up, leaving home, and seeking love in a dangerous world. Akin, a co-production with the Music-Theatre Group, is currently on view through March 8 at the La MaMa Annex in New York City. Slight and boyishly handsome, the 33-year-old singer-actor-writer-director has a mobile face that can portray a dozen personalities in the course of an evening, from naive schoolboy to AIDS patient, from preening diva to jaded hustler. Every new Kelly opus seems to bring new talents into view, all the better to engage the unconscious baggage each audience brings to a performance. “I work within a broad dynamic of change and juxtaposition and absurdity, not because that’s what seems to be going on now but because that’s what my sensibility is quirky and full of pratfalls” he says. “I’m a restless creature, and I use the audience’s expectations for ironic purposes, for poetic purposes.”
Originally trained as a dancer, Kelly had been a painter for some years when, in 1979, he first made a name for himself in New York’s theatrical underground. His was a drag act, and like all successful drag, it had its own point of view and subtext. “I started doing drag at the Anvil [a popular leather bar], lip-synching “Habanera” from Carmen by Maria Callas,” says Kelly. “It was a way of inhabiting another persona and getting out a lot of rage. Because it was opera, those big notes looked like a person who was screaming. And it wasn’t your usual drag, it was a lot of black slips and punked-out red wigs, so that was definitely a version of the gay aesthetic. “Now I’m more interested in exploring male characters,” he says. “Visually, men have fewer options than women, but if you dig, you can discover all sorts of things. And I’m a man, so I’m going to find it more interesting to portray male characters”
Men and touch are among the big themes in Akin. Kelly has employed three musicians, six performers, and original music by Richard Peaslee and has even filmed sections to tell the story of a family in medieval times whose father is a troubadour. When the man’s son leaves home, the piece leaps with him through time to the 20th century. But the father stays in his medieval guise and hovers over the sons life in the future until he understands that his son has inherited his troubadour gift, which is the gift to sing about his experience. “Akin is about a son’s relationship to his father” explains Kelly. “That’s been a struggle for me since I was a kid, especially issues of sexuality and life-style. In this piece the father has the magical power to black out any event he doesn’t like so that it will occur again the way he wants it to. When the son leaves home and moves into the 20th century, the father controls his son’s life for a while by blacking things out. It’s a great way of doing different versions of certain scenes.
Even though Kelly borrows from the past, “I try to tap into what’s happening in my life at that given moment and use that as a resource in my work,” he says. “I had a friend who died from AIDS ten years ago, when they didn’t know what it was yet. It’s influenced everything since then.” For instance, Kelly’s Maybe It’s Cold Outside ends with a disorder of bodies and a tally of deaths filling a board at the rear of the stage. “Dealing with things head-on is the best way to deal with them” he says. “And to deal with things in front of an audience-whether it’s AIDS or a father’s love—is a pretty intense situation to put oneself in. “