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Kelly Meets Cage, Once Again

Rural Intelligence Arts
Left: photo of John Kelly by Billy Erb; right: photo of John Cage poster by Everett McCourt

On a New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s, John Kelly was invited to a party at a downtown Manhattan loft while working on a production of his Light Shall Lift Them, about the French clown Barbette and Jean Cocteau. It was a night the acclaimed performance artist would never forget, since it was there that he met avant-garde composer and monolith of modern music, John Cage, whose 100th birthday was celebrated at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on November 17. As part of the mixed media tribute, John Cage: On & Off the Air!, with the remarkable percussion ensemble NEXUS, Kelly performed Cage’s 1942 radio play, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, mounted by Bard professor and John Cage Trust executive director Laura Kuhn

Following a solo cabaret act of Kurt Weill and Charles Aznavour songs at Joe’s Pub in New York last week, he remembers the meeting well. “Most of all I was struck by Cage’s luminous smile and remember wondering whether he might have been doing mushrooms.” (Which made sense: Cage was an expert fungi hunter.) 

Rural Intelligence ArtsAt Cage’s side that evening was his lifelong partner, the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham (left, with Cage) who attempted to slow the rapid-fire pace of Kelly’s delivery of excited conversation by inviting the young man to “take a breath” so Cage could resume what he was saying. Moments later, in sotto voce, Merce would then gracefully choreograph Kelly back into the conversation with “Begin again ”—as a teacher of a master class might cue an overzealous student.
In recent years, not too many figures such as Cage have wielded such power over this legendary, irreverent, and sometimes voluble chameleon. A former dancer turned performance artist, singer, mime, musician, writer, painter, and video artist, Kelly delves deep into each of the multifaceted stage characters he portrays, passionately honing aspects of his alter egos, sometimes even to the point of injury. In 2002, for instance, he fractured two vertebrae in a fall during a trapeze lesson while attempting to portray a minor character from the classic French film, Children of Paradise.

Rural Intelligence ArtsFollowing the mishap, he spent months in recovery but rather than allow the near fatal accident to dim his creative spirit, Kelly found instead that the experience had galvanized his inspiration. In The Paradise Project, which was performed later that year, he interlaced the story-telling aspect of the mime Baptiste with startling video closeups of the supine character’s face constrained by angst. Remembering Cage’s fondness for using chance and randomness in his compositions, Kelly mined his own pain to show how a random circumstance had transformed his own life and work. Had he still been around, Samuel Beckett might have stood patiently in queue to see John Kelly accomplish this remarkable feat.

Rural Intelligence ArtsWith the play only a few weeks away, Kelly hands me his score of the piece, which is annotated with many tadpole-like squiggles and scrawls—notations resembling a cuneiform text. “I’m basically shy,” he says. “I still get nervous going on stage and sometimes feel like I’m walking a tightrope over a river with crocodiles below. I prepare myself like a race horse before going on stage.”

“But,” he adds quickly, “in spite of all the notations, I’ll always be guided by Cage’s firm belief that chance and indeterminacy must come into play for a work to succeed.” For Kelly, that philosophy jibes well with his own nonconformist approach to his most memorable characters, such as Joni Mitchell ( Paved Paradise) or the fictional renegade diva, Dagmar Onassis. The illegitimate transvestite child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, she survived her diva mother’s miscarriage and was destined thereafter to roam the smoke-filled bars of Alphabet City, trolling “for truth and expression, a dragon swimming underwater in a clear stream, embracing loss and hope in the same focused breath.”

Rural Intelligence ArtsAlthough John Kelly never met John Cage again after his brief encounter decades ago, he has espoused Cage’s credo throughout his life and career. With his German-Scots-Irish DNA, Kelly likes to say that his goal is to become “a man who is able to be present, accept life and death in the same breath and still remain in the game.” And for the most part, Kelly has succeeded in that goal. A survivor of the soul-stripped plastic Disneyland of post-punk Bohemia, he’s spent his career fine-tuning an artistic legacy that reflects his meticulous and lifelong scrutiny of self and others.

When finally asked about Cage’s influence on his own work—and the trend in music today, Kelly smiles enigmatically and says that he basically agrees with his faux contralto, Dagmar Onassis: He will accept no boundaries, embrace the eclectic, remain multi-curious and above all, add some menace to the mix! — Everett McCourt

John Cage: On & Off the Air! with John Kelly and NEXUS.
Saturday, November 17 @ 8 p.m
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson

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