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Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte

John Kelly revives his visually arresting dance-theater piece based on the life and work of Expressionist painter Egon Schiele.

John Kelly and MacKenzie Meehan
in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte
(© Steven Schreiber)
Sharp, angular movements characterize much of the choreography within John Kelly's Obie Award-winning dance-theater piece, Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, now being revived at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre. The visually arresting performance is based on the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, an early 20th century Expressionist.

Kelly incorporates a number of poses from Schiele's artworks into his movement vocabulary, and in a few instances brings in copies of actual Schiele paintings for he and his dancers to interact with. Most notably, there's a powerful segment in which Kelly as Schiele and Tymberly Canale as Schiele's mistress Wally literally enter into one of the artist's paintings.

But while Kelly and company are able to invoke the harsh, twisted expressivity that characterizes much of the painter's work, they're less successful in conveying the charged eroticism that made Schiele so controversial. Indeed, from what's depicted onstage, it's hard to understand why Schiele was arrested and jailed for what were deemed pornographic drawings.

There is a subtle homoeroticism between two male dancers, Eric Jackson Bradley and Luke Murphy (identified in the program as "Alter Egons"), as their interactions require them to give and take weight from one another, and lift or otherwise intertwine themselves in each other's bodies. However, Schiele's more disturbing and sensuous works usually involved the female body, and despite Canale's presence as a live model within the performance, this aspect of the artist's work seems to be downplayed.

There is a lovely sequence involving Schiele painting a portrait of his wife, Edith (MacKenzie Meehan) that utilizes Kelly's own drawing skills in conjunction with a foam-covered painting that is revealed as the artist works on it. However, the image that emerges is one of the more traditionally representational paintings in Schiele's oeuvre, without the kind of contortions that are found in many of his other works.

There's no spoken text within the 75-minute performance, although Kelly and filmmaker Anthony Chase take their cue from silent movies for some filmed sequences, projected onto a large white screen, and which sometimes include written passages. Additionally, Bradley and Murphy begin the piece by displaying a chronological narrative of the scenes from Schiele's life that we will see enacted.

The only live vocals come at the very end, as Kelly sings an operatic aria, first a cappella and then to a pre-recorded instrumental track. Like the other musical selections within the performance-- mostly classical pieces from the likes of Beethoven, Purcell, and Strauss-- the song establishes the mood and tempo for this often-haunting performance.