Theater archives

‘Artists Are Warriors’: An Interview With John Kelly, a Performer Outside of Time


John Kelly is a downtown–New York legend, an unclassifiable performer who has embodied figures as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Egon Schiele, and Caravaggio. A self-described “range queen” blessed with a flexible singing voice and a body and face that can transform themselves at will, Kelly is looking inward right now in his new show, Time No Line, which opens this week at La MaMa. Both this piece and a concurrent exhibit — “Sideways Into the Shadows,” at Howl! Happening Gallery in the East Village — use some of Kelly’s journals to pay tribute to many of the friends he has known and lost through the years.

“Most of my works have been text-absent — I revel in being a mute storyteller,” Kelly tells the Voice. “But since specific details are crucial in realizing the notion of a ‘live memoir,’ I’ve found myself having to focus on the broader, more overriding themes that have triggered and fueled my experiences. So there are four or five of these themes that form the structure of Time No Line. Some are read live, others projected on video.” Kelly has kept his diary “since 1976. It travels with me. I bring it to bed each night. It’s a check-in with my psyche and the assorted business and creative imperatives, whether a redundant to-do list for the following day, or an uncontrolled spilling of insights and complaints.”

Though Kelly admires journals by writers like Virginia Woolf, he hadn’t wanted to use his own journals specifically in his work until now. “It’s not a genre I’ve been objectively drawn to,” he admits. “Just a habit that has accumulated and become a significant body of work, a source of both insanely good raw material and embarrassment and remorse. It’s tough to read back through this stuff. For me, it was never considered as a public destination — that would have ruined its un-self-conscious purity and transparency.”

Kelly is a Renaissance man like Jean Cocteau, and, like Cocteau, he has often been preoccupied with mirrors, as most dancers are. “For me it’s more functional than ego-driven,” says Kelly of looking in the mirror. “Like, what can I get away with as a chameleon performer — especially as I age. My face was once a flexible blank canvas. Now it comes with some mileage that is insistent and undeniable.”

Since he has often been averse to words, Kelly has found plentiful material for his work in silent-era cinema. “Wanting to communicate, and realizing that I was an innate actor without the desire to speak, silent films have been a source of both inspiration and frustration,” says Kelly. “Conrad Veidt is one of my idols. In 1986, I made a work based on his portrayal of Cesare the somnambulist in the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It was called Diary of a Somnambulist. We filmed it on Super 8mm, and it’s never been edited — hopefully that will happen soon. As a visual artist, the German Expressionist films have blown me away.”

He adds, “The spoken word was the last thing I cared to add to my arsenal as a performer. Maybe this is because my training has been almost exclusively in dance and visual art. I do seem to possess the ‘heroic’ gene — needing things to be difficult, even daunting. Like renting Carnegie Recital Hall and performing operatic and art song recitals in drag — doing trapeze, tight-wire, certain endurance gestures.”

Kelly trained on the trapeze in order to more fully embody Barbette, a legendary female impersonator of the 1920s. “The downside of placing oneself in the role of the hero is actual danger,” says Kelly. “For instance, I fell from a trapeze and broke my neck in 2004 during a training session for a performance. I survived that, but came so close to losing the use of my limbs. Maybe all performers, perhaps all artists to some degree, are warriors. Like activists, we put ourselves on the line for a cause, because of an idea, a moral imperative, or a lusted-after imaginary scenario that we just need to bring to life and inhabit.”

Kelly’s Time No Line is less about himself and more about the people he has lost. “At this point the characters that haunt me are the friends and lovers that have been depleted from my generation because of the AIDS pandemic, starting in 1982 with the loss of a lover,” he says. “My tribe is absent — these ghosts continue to haunt my life and color my experiences. Time No Line is a gesture toward attempting to reconcile these ruptures. Honoring the comrades that no longer walk with me through this life.”

Time No Line
La MaMa, Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 East 4th Street
Through March 11