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The DanceView Times, New York edition

The Art of Transformation

The Skin I'm In
John Kelly
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
January 6, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter

"If I love something enough, I feel compelled to inhabit it completely," John Kelly stated in a voice-over at the start of his recent program that opened the Joyce's annual Altogether Different series. Physically and vocally, Kelly has inhabited a fascinating array off delicate, beguilingly strange beings over the years. His transformations are carefully wrought and suggest he is not just borrowing the look or mannerisms of these people, but inhabiting their souls.

The Skin I'm In (choreographed, directed and designed by Kelly) revisited several of his creations from the past twenty years, allowing viewers to renew (or make) a brief acquaintance with the opera diva Dagmar Onassis, the eccentric, tormented artist Egon Schiele, the cross-dressing aerialist Barbette, and others. Interspersed with these selections were three vignettes created for this program.

The combined result was a series of refined, vivid moments, but not the kind of all-enveloping theatrical experience one has come to expect from Kelly. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, with abrupt blackouts and hurried on-stage shifting and removal of set pieces. Kelly is usually a master of creating a refined, intense mood, using an array of movement, musical and atmospheric effects. On this occasion, the moods came and went, some more potent than others, and with their impact lessened by the abrupt transitions.

Kelly resurrected some of the imaginative film segments by Anthony Chase that have been so integral to many of his pieces. These proved to be the anchor of the evening. Light Shall Lift Them, Kelly's 1993 tenderly affectionate and at times sweetly hilarious exploration of the phenomenon of Vander Barbette, was represented by the pivotal moment when the hero, responding to an ad for an aerialist, comes to understand that the position is part of a sister act, and that a female performer is required. Lovingly shot in the style of a jerky 1920s silent film, it allows the whole sequence of events to be communicated on the delightfully exaggerated faces of Kelly, Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton.

Because Kelly seems to have such an affinity for figures from the past, it was surprising that when the lights first came up, they revealed a quite contemporary (could it be Fire Island?) beach scene, with two slim shirtless guys in bathing suits lying on towels with a radio nearby. But the soulful romantic in Kelly was nonetheless present; when the radio was switched on, it played Maria Callas singing an aria from La Sonnambula. The seemingly everyday scene, complete with other beachgoers passing through, soon gave way to the theatrical magic created by a rich red, seemingly endless swath of deep red fabric that unfurled to reveal its mysteries.

Also identified as a premiere was Paradise, which borrowed from The Paradise Project, Kelly's 2002 full-evening meditation on Marcel Carne's masterwork Children of Paradise, in which Kelly portrayed a troubled, stymied contemporary artist who frees his imagination by entering the world of the film. This offshoot blended elements from that piece with allusions to the reality of Kelly's experiences working on it: while rehearsing a planed trapeze sequence, he fell and suffered a serious spinal injury.

Kelly surrounded himself with five dancers who were clearly on his imaginative wavelength and as open to transformation as he is. The men proved particularly deft, with David Zurak and Christopher Williams capturing the eerie quirkiness of the "Alter Egons" in the excerpts from Kelly's pungent Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, in which he again demonstrated how ideally the role of Schiele fits him.

Photo of John Kelly by Phil Knott.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 2
January 12, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on January 11, 2004