Abare-chested dancer representing Inspiration crashes through a wall, trailing strips of luminescent white fabric. Jean Cocteau, natty is a tailored suit, follows close behind. The two dance a duet: They confront each other, they cooperate. Inspiration transports Cocteau (on his back) and then literally floors him. Cocteau freezes Inspiration long enough to sketch a picture, but then Inspiration dances a flapper number and leaves as quickly as he entered. Cocteau is left bereft, leadenly walking through steps which had been graceful a moment before.
The work is Light Shall Lift Them, created, choreographed and directed by John Kelly, playing Nov. 10-13 in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. It is a lyrical look at Cocteau and one of the figures who inspired him, Texan aerialist Vander Clyde, who captivated Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, performing in drag under the name Barbette. Its scope is epic, spanning two continents and four decades; in all, Kelly, singer Mary Elizabeth Poore and dancer Robert La Fosse of the New York City Ballet play 10 characters. Kelly even appears on a trapeze reenacting a Barbette routine. The subject, as in much of Kelly’s work, is the role of loss and creativity in artists’ lives. And, like all of Kelly’s work, Light Shall Lift Them contains no spoken dialogue, instead using music (composed by Bill Obrecht with lyrics by Mark Campbell), film (shot by Anthony Chase), dance and exquisite visual images to convey the story.
Surreal, dreamlike logic
The dance between Cocteau (Kelly) and his Inspiration (La Fosse) exemplifies the surreal, dreamlike logic Kelly’s work possesses. “I’ve never been interested in doing |theatre of speaking’ because I think there’s a lot of it that’s really boring,” Kelly shrugs. Everyday speech is not theatrical, he asserts, so in theatre “one can achieve poetry more readily without words, by using images and dynamics.” Kelly believes in telling stories obliquely “But at the same time I want to communicate with people. I don’t want to just do it at them; it needs to be an exchange.”
Kelly’s unconventional techniques don’t usually make his work difficult to follow, but they do make it difficult to categorize, and he finds the capitalist emphasis on arts marketing discouraging. Although Kelly considers his work theatre, his critics have a harder time classifying it. “People often ask, Is what you do dance? Is it theatre? Is it music? What is it?’ And then if you call it performance art,” he goes on, “it’s a bad rap. Now I’m into calling myself a poet. But people don’t trust that.”
Kelly’s background he bounced from courses in visual art to dance and then studied to be a painter pointed him in the direction of multimedia performance. One night, while sketching the crowd at a New York gay club, he was struck by a man in punk drag lip-synching songs by the exotic vocalist Nina Hagen. “It was a revelation,” he recalls. “It wasn’t really about women, it was asexual or neuter and it was like a Fury. And I looked at it and said, My God, that’s exactly what I want to create.'” Kelly began staging his own drag performances at venues such as Manhattan’s Pyramid Club, first lip-synching Maria Callas and then singing operatic arias in his own compelling countertenor. He auditioned for theatre experimentalists Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch and Richard Foreman, and was turned down by all of them. “Obviously,” he notes, “I wasn’t meant to be in other people’s work.”
Kelly has proved that observation with a vengeance, creating some 20 theatre pieces over the past nine years and appearing in recital in drag three times at Carnegie Hall. Soft-spoken and articulate in person, he is a chameleon on stage, energizing any performance by his authoritative presence. Cocteau’s description of Barbette also holds true of Kelly: “As soon as Barbette appears he throws his magic dust in our eyes. Barbette moves in silence. Barbette is one of those statues that move.”
Cruelty that has no voice
Despite the occasional obscure topic of Kelly’s work–which has ranged over subjects from Lady Macbeth to Expressionist artist Egon Schiele his creations always explore universal dilemmas. His recent work is partly a response to AIDS. Akin, a Music-Theater Group production mounted last season at New York’s La Mama ETC, depicted two Medieval troubadours, father and son, during the Black Plague. Although it never mentioned AIDS, Akin drew less than veiled parallels to the current epidemic. Kelly resists the impulse to make his work any more literal. “An ACT UP rally is great Theatre of AIDS in the street, in the culture. On stage it has to be more metaphorical, expressing feelings about the AIDS crisis in terms of a human dilemma.” As the young troubadour sings in Akin, “There’s a cruelty to life that has no voice yet you’re still resolved to sing, there is no choice.”
Kelly considers Light Shall Lift Them a particularly optimistic piece. He explains, “My set designer Huck Snyder died in January. It was a very significant thing to happen for me professionally and personally, and other people have died since then. So throwing myself onto a trapeze seems to me like throwing myself back into life in a way–a very life-affirming thing to do.”
Kelly’s current use of drag is abstract, a theatrical tool. “For me, drag relates most closely to clowns or mimes or asexual icons. I just happen to be wearing that kind of makeup and a wig. It’s me as an actor giving myself as many options as possible.” Kelly finds it difficult to find interesting male characters to play, he says, because “visually they’re so similar, unless you go into history. And I happen to look good in drag.”
Yet at the same time, he knows that drag sets off sexual and moral alarm bells and he is vehement in his desire not to distance audiences. Kelly includes drag in Light Shall Lift Them because the actual Barbette performed in drag, and, as he says, “even though that’s all anybody is ever going to talk about in this piece (even though the drag is only going to be like five minutes), it was important for me to bring that element into this performance to not be safe.”