‘John Kelly: Time No Line’
Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater
After more than thirty-five prolific years as an artist, John Kelly is still hard to categorize.
Once referring to himself as an “aesthetic octopus,” he’s been mounting his performance pieces since the early 1980’s, when he appeared in New York’s East Village at clubs like the Limbo Lounge, the Pyramid Club, and Club 57. Since then, his works have been presented at a diverse range of venues around the country and the world. He’s been praised as a choreographer, a theater artist, a writer, a vocalist, a filmmaker, dancer, a visual artist and more. He’s won 2 Obies, 2 Bessies, The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, and an NEA “Masterpiece Award.”
More than that, he’s a survivor, a living piece of queer cultural history who served as a leading light in New York’s downtown arts community during the height of the AIDS crisis – an experience which is recorded not just in his memory, but in his journals.
Those journals serve as the basis for “Time No Line,” a “live memoir” that Kelly brings to REDCAT, CalArts’ downtown center for contemporary arts, for its West Coast premiere, April 25-27.
In the performance, which premiered last February at La Mama, Kelly combines text from the journals with movement, video, music and song, and live drawing, to create a theatrical rendering of his experiences within the East Village performance art scene of the 1980s which touches on gender performance, the AIDS epidemic, and a shared cultural history he sees as being threatened by cultural amnesia.
As Kelly tells the Blade, he’s doing it to add his voice to “our interrupted cultural and generational dialogue.”
“My generation was wiped out,” he says. “It’s kind of like living in the aftermath of World War I, where an entire generation of men was wiped out – and an entire generation of artists, both in their prime and just about to hit their prime. It’s like a sinkhole in our culture – in the dialogue between generations, the dialogue between gay men, specifically.”
He says the devastating loss of so many queer elders has been “exacerbated” by the advent of the digital technology revolution in the 1990s, which led to what he calls “more and more of a youth culture.”
“A lot of things conspired to erase the histories that were being written, or just coming to be written,” he says. “I feel a duty as a survivor both of the virus and of the catastrophe, to make my voice heard – but also to connect some of the dots that maybe aren’t being connected that frequently.”
“I try not to sound like a complainer,” he reflects, “and I try to be an example – but for me and a lot of other people, it’s like we carry this history of loss and struggle with us, and there’s really no escaping it.”
“Yet at the same time one moves forward,” he adds. “It’s not like I’m trying to linger on that in my work, so much. It’s about a lot of other things.”
Since the piece has been derived from his own journals, kept since 1976, much of what Kelly presents is his own personal history; he relates his discovery of dance as a teenager, and his pursuit of a ballet education only to realize that he had started too late and was “not going to be able to mold my body into a ballet body” – a reckoning that prompted his him to quit dance and go to art school, and then to quit art school and go to the East Village, where he started “performing punk drag in clubs like The Anvil.”
“The whole story is told with a combination of words, movement, music, video,” Kelly explains, “and as I go through each of the episodes, I’m drawing on the floor with chalk, so the history accumulates through the course of the work, and by the end the stage is pretty much covered in chalk drawings – which are also getting obliterated, as I walk over them.”
“Obviously, there are layers to this piece,” he adds, with sly understatement.
There’s also singing, something for which Kelly is also known – his recent “character study” performance as Joni Mitchell, “Down To You,” was voted by the New York Times as “one of the best opera and vocal performances of 2017.”
He sings a Mitchell song in “Time No Line,” too, as well as one by Charles Aznavour and another selection that sounds like one of the performance’s highlights.
“I do a duet with myself on a piece of film that I shot, in 1992,” he explains. “It’s a duet by Henry Purcell for tenor and countertenor, and I’m dancing and singing with my previous self, reading the words that I wrote 40 years ago – and it’s weird!”
With his own history rooted so deeply into the New York experience, there are inevitably some aspects of “Time No Line” that Kelly recognizes may put Los Angeles audiences at a bit of a distance.
“There are certain references, to the East Village and the Anvil and stuff like that,” he muses. “But I guess, in a way, the East Village scene embodies kind of a last gasp of bohemia in New York City, for sure, before gentrification came along and raped possibility – and I imagine that same scenario exists in every city, in terms of gentrification, and how it forces artists and outsiders to find new places to thrive.”
“So aside from those specific references,” he says, “I’m hoping that this piece is universal enough that the audience is able to witness my journey as an individual without feeling left behind, through the shaping of the piece, and the performance of the piece.”
“And my profound charisma,” he adds, with an endearingly self-deprecating chuckle.
However he manages to accomplish it, Kelly says that, ultimately, he is just trying “to move people.”
“I like to create beauty, I like to take chances,” he says, “and I always feel like I’m a beginner at what I do – and maybe that’s okay, having a beginner’s mind.”
“But I’m persisting,” he concludes. “I’m not good at anything else.”