Love of a Poet, 1990
Battery Maritime Building

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John Kelly has described his work as existing “in the cracks between theater and dance: I am searching for my own domain.”* Deeply involved in New York’s boundary-breaking East Village performance scene in the 1980s, Kelly’s work resides at the intersection of multiple disciplines—performance art, photography, opera, video, theater, and dance among them. Invariably talented, Kelly has employed his classical ballet training, distinct countertenor voice, and even aerialist acrobatics to create inimitable forms of contemporary performance.

John Kelly’s wide-ranging productions often take the act of artistic creation and performance itself as their meta-subject. Over the course of his decades-long career as a performer and artist, Kelly has enacted works based on actual characters including artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, Viennese Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, as well as fictitious characters such as operatic diva Dagmar Onassis (the “secret love child” of soprano Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis). Kelly embodies these and other archetypical figures in order to personify and mirror themes of torment, struggle, beauty, and inspiration central to the life of an artist.

John Kelly’s artistic allegories are wholly reflected in his 1990 Obie Award-winning chamber opera Love of a Poet, originally presented by Creative Time and Dance Theater Workshop. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (German for “poet’s love”), a sixteen-song cycle from 1840, Love of a Poet was a melancholic vision of artistic creation, dramatizing the impassioned perspective of a lovesick poet. Kelly’s performance, with its period clothing and classical compositions, did not so much update the canonical Dichterliebe as provide a reimagined version of the production for a 20th century audience. Kelly recounts, “I became fascinated with unearthing the extremes of nature and emotion embedded in this artistic movement called Romanticism… The music and lyrics were infused with a very high romanticism, not a limp romanticism, but a real up-on-the-mountain-with-the-elements, communing-with nature, throwing-yourself-in-the-river type of romanticism…”**Love of a Poet involved Kelly, alone onstage except for the piano accompaniment of Fernando Torm Tohá, riding the melodramatic waves of unrequited love through his tortured portrayal of the Romantic artist.

Love of a Poet’s songs, performed by Kelly in his countertenor in both English and German, reflected on a poet’s process and his relationship to muses such as love, emotions, dreams, flowers, earthly elements, and fairy-tales. Kelly’s tour-de-force solo performance involved the artist flailing, sobbing, and lamenting across the period piece set replete with a chandelier, wooden planks, dirt and dead flowers, sounds of wind, and gnarled tree branches—all of which came together to represent the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. During Love of a Poet’s crescendo, Kelly dunked himself into a washbasin and then dove headfirst into a pile of dirt. He finished the remainder of the performance covered in mud; an artist sacrificing himself to the grit of his craft.

Love of a Poet was set in the industrial Battery Maritime Building, the waterfront setting described by one reviewer as the “most original theater space in New York,” with ferries passing across the river and their horns sounding amidst the lapping waves.*** In this sense, the work provided a fitting allegory for the rich history of artistic production as inspired by the sights and sounds of Lower Manhattan.

John Kelly will reconstruct Love of a Poet with LMCC in the 2015 River To River Festival at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island on the occasion of the work’s 25th anniversary. Huck Snyder and Pure Madderlake’s original set will be completely re-envisioned by artist Jarrod Beck as an extensive set/installation; the original production’s Anthony Chase (film sequences), Stan Pressner (Lighting Design), and Michael Feingold (Translations), will complete the collaborative team. As Kelly describes it, “The Battery Maritime Building, the site of the original 1990 performance, is the portal and access point for the journey to Governors Island, the site of this 2015 performance. The fact that these two sites face each other across New York Harbor adds another dimension to this creative reconstruction.”

Video of Love of a poet can be viewed online here.

– Alex Fialho


*Kelly, John. John Kelly. New York: 2wice Arts Foundation in association with Aperture, 2001, back cover.
**Ibid, 100.
*** Gordon Rogoff, Future Leider, October 23, 1990.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Billy Erb

Photo Credit (all images):

Love of a Poet, 1990
Photo Credit: Paula Court