Since its humble beginnings 28 years ago, John Kelly’s Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte has been a night of theater that arouses the heart, loins and mind. The seminal performance piece has since played throughout Europe, won an Obie Award and made Kelly a patron saint of the East Village’s avant-garde. A bombastic study of early 20th-century Austrian painter Egon Schiele, Blutwurst returns Dec. 2 to La MaMa, in what’s being billed as its final run—ever. It’s half of a one-two punch that began Nov. 23 at La Galleria with Schiele- Kelly, a solo exhibition of self-portraits in which Kelly uniquely photographs himself portraying the painter.
“Schiele’s a conjurer, but a bit out of control: the definitive adolescent brat,” explains Kelly with a wry smile. “His pushing of the envelope got him in trouble. He’s like the James Dean of Austria.”
To meet Kelly is to meet a man fit for the part. While no one would mistake him for an adolescent brat, he’s maintained a dancer’s physique of wiry muscle and smoldering eyes. Joining Kelly are two essentials from Blutwurst’s prior incarnations: Anthony Chase, the self-taught filmmaker of the show’s 16mm movies projected onstage, and Stan Pressner, a seasoned, jovial lighting designer who’s taught at Julliard, UCLA and NYU. It’s a team that, for Kelly, embodies “cooperation, contribution and minimum of ego.”
Schiele’s paintings—notorious for their contorted nudes and vivid color—first captivated Kelly in his studies at Parsons The New School for Design. “There was so much social information in each line,” Kelly says. “In our fashion illustration class, we studied porno models and bikers, and we were very much influenced by Schiele’s edge of sexuality.”
Prior to art school, Kelly was a prodigy, training at the American Ballet Theatre. The wild gesticulation of Schiele’s figures seemed ripe for realization onstage. He first performed a 10-minute tribute to Schiele in 1982 at East Village staple The Pyramid Club. “It was a great time because real estate was affordable,” Kelly says. “There’s no physical bohemia left in Manhattan, only virtual bohemia.” It was at the Pyramid that Kelly met Chase, a recent émigré fond of shooting experimental films with the Super 8 camera he’d brought from his native South Africa. In the Pyramid’s basement, they produced the first footage of Kelly as Schiele, drawing self-portraits on glass and inventing raucous, jarring choreography. “It was always done on zero budget!” Chase exclaims. “I enjoy getting production value out of nothing.”
This year’s Blutwurst features new dances performed by Kelly and his doppelgangers, the Alter Egons. Other scenes have been rewritten, reshot or set to new music. “I’m using the bones, but altering the flesh a bit,” says Kelly, employing appropriately anatomical words for a work about Schiele.
Pressner goes one step further by stating: “John’s now feeling more of a humanity about Egon.” Pressner characterizes the show’s last run at La MaMa in 1995 as “angular and shadowed, with a kind of Prussian sensibility,” and considers today’s version something entirely rounder and warmer. “Yet one of the interesting things about La MaMa is that it doesn’t change,” he adds. “It has a rough-hewn beauty, and the kind of flexible space you want as an artist.”
So why then is this Blutwurst’s last hurrah? “Schiele died when he was 28,” Kelly explains. “So there’s vitality attached to it.” The artist worked fast: When he met his early demise from an influenza epidemic in 1910, Schiele was arguably the most successful artist in Austria. “Still, I’m jumping around better than I thought I would,” Kelly says.
Being able to jump at all these days is something for which Kelly is immensely grateful. In 2004 he broke his neck in a trapeze accident after slipping out of a harness during rehearsals, fracturing his fourth and sixth vertebrae. He spent 15 hours in St. Vincent’s Hospital, his doctors unsure if he would ever walk again. “It was a real rupture in my life,” Kelly says. “I wound up questioning everything and still can’t fathom that catastrophic lapse in concentration.”
“It was a great time because real estate was affordable,” Kelly says. “There’s no physical bohemia left in Manhattan, only virtual bohemia.”
Shaken up, Kelly took on fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, followed by Radcliffe for a year. He taught at Harvard, and starred in “A Clerk’s Tale,” a short film directed by James Franco that debuted this year at Cannes. Yet at every opportunity, La MaMa’s Artistic Director Ellen Stewart asked Kelly to bring Blutwurst back for another blutletting. “This is a gift to Ellen, who’s been very good to me throughout my career,” Kelly says.
Among these new endeavors were photographs taken this summer in Italy that comprise Schiele-Kelly, and find Kelly tangled up in an array of akimbo poses. The result is a stark biography akin to method acting, and wholly impressive imagery: rich in hue, emotionally taut and true to Schiele’s watercolors without painting-by-numbers.
Yet even amidst so much retrospection, Blutwurst’s creators have no urge to impose morals onto their diverse audience. “To quote David Gordon,” Pressner says, “‘What we want them to take away is their handbag.’” But in producing work as original as it is reverential, the Blutwurst gang offers something memorable: Exquisite art ably refracted into weird new mediums. In short, it’s a rapturous mutation that would titillate young Egon himself.
>> Pass the Blutwurst, bitte Dec. 2-19, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th St., 212-475-7710; Thu.-Sat., 7:30, Sun., 2:30, $25-$30.
>> Schiele-Kelly Nov. 23-Dec. 12, La Galleria, 6 E. 1st St.