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A Chameleon’s Retrospective

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John Kelly returns to Altogether Different with past work, premieres, and film clips

Two-time Obie and Bessie Award winning performance artist John Kelly and his company will kick off the Joyce Theater’s annual Altogether Different Festival this year, a two-week mix of performances by established and emerging artists and companies. It’s a great opportunity to see new work by familiar faces and get a glimpse of some relatively new talent—all at a discount.

Fellow veterans Peter Pucci and Margie Gillis join Kelly, who is returning to the festival for a second time; Rebecca Stenn and Ben Munisteri represent this year’s young bloods.

Kelly, who is renowned for his remarkable ability to assume the personae of various historical figures and characters, will appear as Dagmar Onassis (modeled on Maria Callas), composer Robert Schumann, transvestite Parisian music hall star Barbette, Orpheus, and others in works dating back to 1984, including “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte.” In this piece, originally presented in 1995, he portrays Egon Schiele, searching for inspiration. In Kelly’s choreography, there are two “alter-Egons” representing the artists’ struggle, and the shapes the dancers take are angular and grotesque, mirroring Schiele’s aesthetic quality. The work also features video, some originally from an earlier film project done in 1986, which has a grayscale Kelly drawing with a black marker over his face directly on the camera lens.

In rehearsal, some of the dance’s visuals are missing or muted. Yet even without costumes and lighting, the configurations on stage along with painter’s canvasses and invisible empty frames create a lush and mad imagining. The work is set to music from the ballet “Gisele,” and, as Kelly points out in an open rehearsal, there are references to the classical dance in some of the movement. But without the knowledge and wit of someone like Kelly, they might be missed.

“The Skin I’m In,” which could easily be billed as a John Kelly retrospective, is a multimedia evening of six new and old works restaged for a cast of six, including excerpts of “The Dagmar Onassis Story” (1984), “Love of a Poet” (1990), “Diary of a Somnambulist” (1986), “Exit Aria” (1997), sung in Slovene by Kelly, and “Find My Way Home” (1998), probably the funnest version of the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice you’re ever likely to see at the Joyce or anywhere else.

Film clips and three world premieres featuring music by Radiohead, Mirja Vrhovnik-Smerkar, and more Bellini make for plenty of delights on the program.

Altogether Different runs through January 18 at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea. For complete festival information and a schedule of performances by the other artists on the series, go to www.joyce.org.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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