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John Kelly resurrects his past lives: dancer, filmmaker, drag performer and so much more

John Kelly resurrects his past lives: dancer, filmmaker, drag performer and so much more
John Kelly: Time No Line (Steve Gunther)

John Kelly, creator and performer of the one-man show “Time No Line” running at REDCAT this weekend, might not describe himself as a Renaissance man. For one thing, the term is thrown around loosely these days. Also, it’s a bit presumptuous to liken yourself to Leonardo Da Vinci and identify with the apogee of human achievement.

To sum up his own 40-year journey through a startlingly extensive variety of art forms including dance, drag, theater, filmmaking and drawing, Kelly has coined the phrase “aesthetic octopus.” But plenty of people have called him a Renaissance man. And though he doesn’t use those words in “Time No Line,” a “live memoir” combining video projections, texts and performance, it’s easy to imagine that he is thinking about them up there onstage — and that he has been thinking about all of their many meanings, personal and cultural, since the 1970s.

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A few playful echoes tip us off. Kelly keeps a journal, the inspiration for this work. It’s a combination diary, sketchpad and creative workbook. Pages from the lifelong opus get projected, and they look a lot like the famous journals of Da Vinci.

As Kelly does things in relation to these pages, he changes clothes a lot, revealing a Da Vinci-esque taste for floppy hats. There is even a sequence in which he draws a chalk circle onstage and, while contorting himself like the hands of a clock, fills it with chalk outlines of his own body, resulting in a version of “Vitruvian Man.”

Kelly has re-created himself so many times since he felt the call to become an artist. He began training as a ballet dancer at 17 — too late, he came to believe, to achieve success. After he gave up this dream (“the traumatic end of a great love affair”), he studied drawing and painting. He had spent so much time in an intense relationship with his mirror image that he already had the ideal artist’s model on retainer: himself.

He had given up performing until the Anvil, a famous New York City gay bar in the 1970s, introduced Kelly to the thrill and possibility of drag. He created a character, Dagmar Onassis, the fictional daughter of opera singer Maria Callas and Ari Onassis, who became an icon of the punk scene. He impersonated real people too, including the Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell. Both characters appear in “Time No Line,” complicating the other half of a Renaissance man’s identity: What makes a man? (The question is also the title of a ballad by Charles Aznavour that Kelly performs.)

The show’s title is a play on the word “timeline,” which Kelly suggests is misleading. For him, time is cyclical, and he appears fascinated by how his many transformations haven’t fundamentally altered him. In one lovely moment, an old photograph, taken from behind, is projected on the screen. As Kelly walks toward it, his shadow grows until it finally merges with the image.

If all this sounds kind of self-involved — well, that can be a tricky charge for performance art to defend. “Time No Line” could be seen as an exercise in narcissism. Although much of it feels highly formal, technically polished and almost impersonal in its artiness, at moments Kelly departs from the script, throwing in an explanation or anecdote in a conversational tone. Part of me was delighted by the intimacy and naturalness of these revelations, but a grouchier part was kind of like, “Hey, did I ask for your whole life story?” (I guess, by attending the show, I did.)

Ultimately, Kelly is up to something more profound here than showing off. A survivor of the AIDS pandemic, he has taken on the responsibility of representing his lost generation, of attempting to embody, in the only way he can, the friends and mentors and lovers and artists who inspired him, or could have inspired him had they lived. Like Orpheus — one of his many mythical inspirations — Kelly can’t bring these lost souls back from the dead. He can’t speak for them. He can only grieve for them in his own way, and remind us that they were here.

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‘Time No Line’

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $16-$20

Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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