John Kelly's "Love of a Poet" -- presented this past weekend at the Dance Place by that institution and the Washington Performing Arts Society -- is a song recital like no other. Kelly, a multitalented, chameleon-like performance artist from New York, has chosen as his inspiration the ultra-Romantic "Dichterliebe" song cycle of Robert Schumann, plus selections from that tormented composer's "Liederkreis" and the piano cycle "Kinderszenen," and built a dramatic realm around them.
The songs, set to the simple-yet-anguished poetry of Heinrich Heine and Joseph Von Eichendorff, speak of the pursuit of love, its loss and the need to go in the wake of obsessive, impossible passion. To bring these sentiments to life, Kelly takes on the persona of a tortured poet in his garret. Sensitively accompanied by pianist Fernando Torm-Toha (dressed in 19th-century garb and playing by candlelight), he begins the performance in bed; as the cycle unfolds, we watch him rage, mourn, dunk his head in a bucket of water, dive into a huge mound of dirt, even sing from atop a ladder with his head and upper torso positioned within a gilt frame.
Though his vocal technique is neither polished nor advanced, the manner in which Kelly employs his sweet and plaintive countertenor is magical indeed. Heightening the effect is Kelly-the-dancer's physical daring and keen sense of gesture and space. Whether lurching through Huck Snyder's drapery-strewn set, or pointing one quivering finger at some invisible, elusive demon, he is every bit the Baudelaire-like soul.
Even in Anthony Chase's dreamy black-and-white film sequences -- projected onto a lavender swag of fabric with Feingold's translations -- Kelly makes a most profound impression, looking alternately soft and demented, masculine and feminine.
Traditional concertgoers may have problems with Kelly's approach; for this listener, Schumann's lieder have taken on a new grandeur.