New York

John Kelly

Despite its somewhat lighthearted title, John Kelly’s newest work, Maybe It’s Cold Outside, 1991, was blacker than black. Consisting of an almost funerary series of dreamlike tableaux, the work constituted a sustained meditation on the terror of approaching death. That longtime company member John Beal died shortly before the opening of this production added to the poignancy of the evening.

Kelly’s five-member ensemble unraveled a series of childhood memories in mime and slow-motion dance. In one vignette two boys mimed the familiar initiation ritual of pressing cut fingers together to become blood brothers. Today, this right of passage reads as an ominous exchange of body fluids, suggesting that even playground antics have lost their innocence in the current health crisis. In another section, black and white films that begin as dream sequences soon turn into nightmares. In one grim nocturne, piles of homeless bodies line the streets, while another shows a doctor reading a patient his medical report. A positive sign flashes over the man as his face disintegrates into blood and tears.

This literal approach to the story of AIDS—of young lives so cruelly and abruptly ended—pervades this heartfelt performance. The scenery, by Huck Snyder, with its curtained compartments suggesting a hospice or a madhouse, is heavy with symbolism, pointing to the all-too-rapid passage of time. A giant painted clock backdrop is mirrored on the floor, where the performers spin and dance all over its numberless face. Sandbags drop suddenly from the ceiling adding to the pall of darkness and tragedy. A scientist’s rickety cart of inert, primitive gadgetry, lit with bare light bulbs, serves as a reminder of the inadequacy of funding for AIDS research.

Kelly admits no light into this black production. The “children” graduate, marching to Edward Elgar’s somber and bombastic “Pomp and Circumstance,” but the students in gowns soon become frantic, as black-clad bodies rush across the stage, tripping and falling. A man on a ladder keeps a tally of the country’s constantly mounting death rate. Only when Kelly emerges from behind a curtain, his face streaked with bloody tears, to sing an aria in his haunting countertenor voice, does one, for the briefest moment, respond to the sound of the song and not just its tragic message. “La Sonnabula,” (The sleepwalker, 1831), Vincenzo Bellini’s “final prayer” of a “dying heart” ends with Kelly’s arms outstretched, crushing a palmful of earth into dust.

The overwhelming sadness of this work hides some of its theatrical weaknesses. Despite four clearly able performers, who are also trained dancers, Kelly, in his first ensemble piece in which he does not appear as the central character, treats all performers so equally as to strip them of their individual stage personas. In democratizing this work, he failed to demand of his players the level of eccentricity that has animated his earlier pieces. Though movement and mime are the main vehicles here, the choreography also lacks focus. In the schoolroom scene, for example, performers in parochial uniforms, pigtailed wigs, and knee-length trousers, sit on rows of benches and engage in a charade of childish behavior—hands raised to get teacher’s attention or banished to the dunce corner—missing an opportunity to develop an obsessive and repetitive dance that might have given the linear setting a special intensity.

For an artist of Kelly’s appreciable talents, this work appears to be a quietly cathartic effort—a personal vehicle for his grief in which he has incorporated elements of his own repertoire, while working collectively with a group as a means of achieving the dignity befitting a memorial service. Reconstructing the past seems to be more at issue here than exploring new material, as Kelly courageously eschews any attempt to soften or glamorize the heartbreaking facts. Kelly, who has always been so acutely aware of the beauty in everything, makes it clear with this work that there is no glory in death.

RoseLee Goldberg