Light Shall Lift Them (1993)

Story, direction and choreography by John Kelly
Original score by Bill Obrecht
Lyrics by Mark Campbell
Set design by Billy Jarecki and Tom Pritchard of Pure Madderlake
Film sequences by Anthony Chase
Lighting design by Stan Pressner
Costume design by Donna Zakowska
Trapeze coach, Irina Gold
French diction coach, Jacqueline Chambord
Hair and Makeup, Bobby Miller
Produced by the Leid Art Center, Lincoln, Nebraska, The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, and Liz Dunn for John Kelly Performance
Premiere: Harvey Theater, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 1993
John Kelly (Jean Cocteau; Vander Barbette)
Robert La Fosse (Dargelos; Muse)
Mary Elizabeth Poore (Vander’s Mother; Comtesse de Tildanette; Maid)
On Film: Lucy Sexton, Annie Iobst, Craig Jackson, Daniel Zippi


I first became aware of the mysterious personality named Barbette when I saw Jean Cocteau’s 1931 film, Blood of a Poet. In a scene where spectators in a theater box witness a suicide, I noticed a woman wearing a blond marcelled wig and a glittery 1920s flapper dress and knew instantly this was a man garbed en travestie. Upon further investigation, I learned that he was an aerialist, a trapeze and high-wire artist, who hailed from Texas, and had been Josephine Baker’s main rival in the Paris of the 1920s. My fascination for Barbette reignited in 1993 during a photo shoot for QW magazine. Conversing with photographer Michael O’Brien about which of my gallery of characters we would document, he mentioned Barbette. Excited and equally reverent, we shared all we knew about this intriguing creature. In that moment, I knew I had found my next subject. I was slated to create a new work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival––it would be about “the statue that moves,” the extraordinary Barbette. In time I had to ponder the inevitable: a work about an aerialist would necessarily require some recreation of the act. That would be the payoff. Otherwise it would seem like an extended flirtation. I knew the implications, but not the details of the job ahead of me. I’ve always found physically demanding stage work to be a sure way of getting to the meat of a character, to experience their actual physical and emotional struggle, their moment of epiphany. I’ve groped my way across a high and tightly strung rope. I’ve dived off the stage into the audience. I’ve climbed ladders, danced in ecstasy and grief and assailed difficult arias from the operatic repertory.

But tightwire and trapeze?! Research took me to the library, to Paris and to Florida. With Liz Dunn, I drove from Miami Beach through the Everglades to Fort Meyers, where my parents were spending the winter. On the road trip, I saw magnificent cloud formations in perspective, which would become a visual signature for the work. From Fort Meyers we drove north to Sarasota to watch training sessions and to interview old circus folk who had both seen Barbette in his heyday and worked with him when he was coaching for Ringling Brothers. In the bungalow of a nearly blind trapeze artist, the walls of her home covered with water-stained photos of her Garbo-like countenance in her heyday, Liz and I drank orange juice and breathed in the circus life, gathering what anecdotes remained in Vander Barbette’s wake. I then traveled west to study tightwire at the Pickle Family Circus School in San Francisco and back to New York for trapeze technique with a feisty Russian lady named Irina Gold. From all accounts, Barbette’s aerial act caused a sensation. Seventy years ago, drag performance had genuine power; it had not yet been watered down into the condescending Bermuda Triangle of popular culture. Barbette’s artistry, coupled with the punch line of his act — the removal of the wig during bows––made for legend.

In Light Shall Lift Them, I tell the story of the young circus-obsessed Vander, practicing in the backyard on his mothers galvanized wire clothesline in Round Rock, Texas. I move on to his glory days in Europe, which include a reconstruction of his act. The work ends with the artist as a crippled old man––gray, melancholy, lofty and bitter––being interviewed on film in Austin, using his own words. At the beginning of his career he’d answered an ad, he said, for a partner in the trapeze act of one of the Alfaretta Sisters, World-Famous Aerial Queens: “In the circus there’s a long tradition of boys dressing as girls; and especially in a wire act women’s clothes makes everything more impressive … Alfaretta asked me if I’d mind dressing as a girl. I didn’t; and that’s how it began. I’d always read a lot of Shakespeare, and thinking that those marvelous heroines of his were played by men and boys made me feel that I could turn my specialty into something unique. I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty––of course it would have to be a strange beauty.” He was from Round Rock, Texas; I was from Jersey City, New Jersey. That’s what I saw in him––I saw myself, coming from nothing, finding a dream and living it.

© John Kelly 2019

  • Photo by Paula Court