Constant Stranger (1995)

A solo work in 3 parts

Story, Choreography, Direction, Text, Visual Design: John Kelly
Music: Wal Berg and Camille Francois, Georges Bizet, George Enescu, Ari Frankel, Gustav Mahler, Joni Mitchell, Morrissey, Henry Purcell, Robert Schumann, The Smiths and Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
Musical Arrangements: Philip Lasser
Lighting Design: Carol Mullins
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Costume Mistress, Hebe Joy
Workshop produced by The Danspace Project at St. Marks Church, New York, October 1995
Premiere produced by The Joyce Theater and Liz Dunn for John Kelly & Company, The Joyce Theater, New York, October 10, 1996


Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You’re a brute––you’re an angel
You can crawl––you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you
––Joni Mitchell, from “Down to You”

The title of this piece is from a Joni Mitchell song called Down to You. I’ve always thought that by “constant stranger” she meant your fate, your karma, your lot in life. Like Divine Promiscue, this solo work is about coexisting with a death sentence and, at the same time, trying to find physical and emotional love and remain conscious in the moment.

I shaped this piece into three parts: The Past, where we encounter the character of Swan Boy in his naive youth; The Future, where he consults the Tarot and keeps uncovering cards with lemons painted on them, almost like a slot machine, card after card of lemons; and The Present, where Swan Boy confronts his fears and is forced to be in the present literally when he opens the gift/the present and the present is a skull.

We hold a skull in significant regard. It makes for the structure of our head; it encases our eyes, our tongue, our consciousness. A complicated and fragile hard drive. When we see one naked and stripped of its flesh, we are thrust into a consideration of the inevitable.


The chorus of angelic voices has returned. Swan Boy unwraps the present and finds the gift to contain a skull, which he places center stage on a green swivel chair, its back to the audience.

            He prepares for a ritual. He uncoils a thick length of rope and places it in a circle on the floor around himself, the chair, the skull and the lemons. He then sits in the chair and slowly turns to face the audience. The skull has become part of his body; it rests in his crotch.

            Swan Boy slowly opens a pocketknife. He exposes a bare wrist, places the tip of the blade on the tender skin. His body tenses as he looks upward…


SWAN BOY: Just tell me one thing. Is there a Hell??

THE VOICE: There is no Hell… Let me rephrase that… I would say that you are in hell right now. Just look at your bedsheets.  (The boy looks at his sheets, which are painted with random tally marks, four vertical lines with the fifth line slashed through.) And I would say that the life of a choreographer/performer, in the not-for-profit world, in the United States, IS hell. It’s all in the title: NOT FOR PROFIT.  MUCH pain, little gain.

SWAN BOY: (hesitating) What about Limbo?

THE VOICE: A corrupt Pope invented Limbo in order to justify an unusually high rate of pre-baptismal infant mortality. It’s kind of like being stuck in the transporter in Star Trek, or having to sneeze without actually sneezing. And energy does not die… it moves on to another place and time…

SWAN BOY: Is there a separate afterlife for critics?

THE VOICE: …silence…

SWAN BOY: …………..I have no choice.

Swan Boy looks at the knife again and places it on his wrist. In that moment, a hanging lightbulb slowly illuminates above his head. He finds himself looking past the pain, past his wrist, past the disease, the turmoil, the savage sense of loss, down to the floor. Something has distracted him.

            He moves the point of the blade past his wrist toward the ground where it then punctures a chosen lemon. He lifts the lemon to his lap, slowly slices it and bites into the sour fruit. In this mouth-watering grimace, he embraces his fate, taking part in the continuation of his life, choosing to become a collaborator, not a victim; a participant, not a bystander.

© John Kelly 2019/2001

  • Photo by Paula Court