Like twins separated at birth, music and theater seem to have an eternal yearning for one another. New Visions, a series of special events that Lincoln Center’s Great Performers program will launch this week, is specifically devoted to presenting staged versions of classical work. Between now and the end of the May, the series will pair internationally renowned theater artists Peter Sellars, Robert Lepage, and Bill T. Jones with esteemed singers Lorraine Hunt, Rebecca Blankenship, and Jessye Norman.

For the inaugural program, a staged version of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” called “Moondrunk,” which will be performed January 15 and 16 at the New Victory Theater, the figure from the world of music is pianist Sarah Rothenberg. In her acclaimed “Music Speaks” programs at Lincoln Center, Ms. Rothenberg has explored the interconnections between music and the literature of Franz Kafka, the Surrealists, and Anna Akhmatova, among others. Her collaborator on “Moondrunk,” however, is John Kelly, one of those rare artists in whose career the twin muses have never been separated.

As an actor, Mr. Kelly has the pale, haunted appearance of a German Expressionist film star. A skilled dancer and award-winning choreographer, he has been described by one dance critic as “beyond-all wonderful at the tiny nuances of expression and gesture.” And when he opens his mouth to sing, what most often comes out is a countertenor voice that is both startling and eerily compelling. In the course of his career, he has put his multiple talents to use in evening-length portraits of artists ranging from composer Robert Schumann (“Love of a Poet”) to painter Egon Schiele (“Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte”), from pop singer Joni Mitchell (“Paved Paradise”) to a transvestite tightrope walker named Barbette (“Light Shall Lift Them”).

No two of Mr. Kelly’s character studies have taken the same theatrical form, which is a tribute partly to his restless temperament and partly to his remarkably varied training. Born and raised in Jersey City, N.J., he first studied dance as a teenager at the American Ballet Theatre School. Feeling he’d started too late to master ballet, he enrolled at Parsons School of Design, where he studied painting with Larry Rivers. In recent years he has undertaken intensive courses in singing at the Accademia Musicale Ottorino Respighi in Assisis, Italy, in Decroux corporeal mime at the Theatre D’Ange Fou in Paris, and in trapeze and tightwire with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. This is the kind of multidisciplinary training that would be typical for, say, a Peking Opera performer but is unusual for a 45-year-old American performer who started making shows at the Pyramid Club in the East Village.

All of this might seem like so much insecure dabbling if there weren’t a strong artistic sensibility threading through this disparate resume. As New York Times critic Mel Gussow once wrote, “Mr. Kelly is one of the most intensely personal of performance artists even as his subjects range widely in classical history and mythology. Through his alchemic art, he manages to identify himself with figures as disparate as Egon Schiele, Orpheus and the Mona Lisa. Each becomes an extension of the tragic poet personality he projects on stage.”

As a creator of theater pieces, Mr. Kelly’s method is to immerse himself in the artistic expression of a particular period. To prepare for “Love of a Poet,” his 1990 staging of Schumann’s early 19th century song cycle “Dichterliebe,” he read a lot of German romantic literature (including Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” and lots of Heine), looked at the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and meditated on his own youth as a melancholy dandy. And as a performer he isn’t afraid to immerse his body, either. Halfway through “Love of a Poet,” he dipped his head into a wash basin, let water drip down his face, and then plunged head-first into a mound of earth that had earlier served as a symbol of the grave, so he sang the rest of the performance covered in mud.

It was this full-bodied aestheticism that drew Ms. Rothenberg to Mr. Kelly. The pianist, who divides her time between New York and Houston, where she is artistic director of the chamber music ensemble Da Camera of Houston, had played “Pierrot Lunaire” in concert many times and recorded it with soprano Lucy Sexton, who will sing in the New Victory performances as well. She knew she wanted to mount an evening that would examine the context out of which Schoenberg created his curious 1912 masterwork, an adaptation of 21 poems by Belgian writer Albert Giroud channeled through the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot and performed by a vocalist in “sprechstimme,” halfway between singing and speaking. She didn’t quite know what the theatrical element of the evening would be until she happened to see Mr. Kelly’s Egon Schiele piece, “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte,” in Houston.

“I was struck by Kelly’s sophisticated use of music and his deep kinship with the artistic period of ‘Pierrot,’ as well as his own distinctive artform, which hovers between dance and theater just as the singer of ‘Pierrot’ hovers between song and speech,” Ms. Rothenberg wrote in a program note for “Moondrunk,” which premiered last April in Houston.

Mr. Kelly was drawn to the project less by Schoenberg -- “I always preferred Berg,” he said in an interview, with the casual crispness of an opinionated aficionado -- than by the opportunity to play Pierrot. Ever since he saw Jean-Louis Barrault as the melancholy clown in the film “Children of Paradise” while he was a student at Parsons, “I felt destined to play this character,” Mr. Kelly said.

He described “Pierrot Lunaire” as “incredibly beautiful and strange, kind of like an acid trip. There’s a lot of strange imagery in the poems and the sound of yearning and anxiety. It’s been a real challenge to strike a balance between the poetry and my relationship to the music. What I’ve aimed for is to provide a visual/kinetic counterpart that has its own integrity, that tells its own story alongside the words.”

Fans of Mr. Kelly’s who treasured his hilarious and musically reverent impersonation of Joni Mitchell in “Paved Paradise” (reprised in the movie “Wigstock”) may be surprised that he acts and dances in “Moondrunk” but does not sing. Again, it’s a reflection of his multiple gifts that he can shuffle them from project to project. No wonder he names as his idols Leonard da Vinci and Jean Cocteau.

“I hate the term ‘renaissance man,’ but it’s better than ‘performance artist,’” said Mr. Kelly. “I think the thing Sarah saw in my work was the ability to tell a story without the spoken word. I consider myself to be a poet, and I’m always trying to arrive at the place where something becomes poetry.”

New York Times, January 10, 1999

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