Ode To A Cube (1988)

Story, choreography, direction, visual design by John Kelly
Music by Adolphe Adam, Georges Bizet, Giulio Caccini, Joni Mitchell, Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amilcare Ponchielli, Henry Purcell, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Camille Saint-Saens, Robert Schumann, Giuseppe Verdi, Paul Whiteman
Lighting design by Howard Thies
Premiere: La MaMa E.T.C., New York, October 14, 1988


After the protean effort of Find My Way Home, I was at my wit’s end. I was overextended, frustrated and tired. In essence, my muse had split. I was also booked to premiere a new work. Metaphorically, I felt like I was stuck in the dressing room, staring past the wings into a theater, the audience waiting for me to come up with the goods while I wondered what on earth I would do on stage. Ask any performer–An all too familiar performance anxiety nightmare. My solution: render my point of view. Literally. If straddling the footlights had taken its toll, I would make a piece about the footlights.

I designed the set so that the footlights were along a side wall. The real audience shared my vantage point, as if they were seated in and looking through the off-stage wings onto the stage which lay beyond. In this sacred precinct, hidden from the imagined audience but in full view of the actual audience, was a messy dressing table, chair and mirror loaded with costumes, makeup and props––a safety zone.

In this story, the performer’s muses have turned into demanding demons. He performs a song, a dance, a song, short acts played to the footlights, punctuated by a recurring musical signature like a chime––next!––functioning to define and announce each short piece. He loves this stuff, right? The unrelenting vaudevillian demands reach a feverish pitch, and the poor soul eventually has a bit of a mad scene, finally tripping over the mysterious black cubes that are the only formal set elements on yonder stage. For the first time, he considers what their purpose might be in this now hateful arena.

Oblivious to the faux audience, he confronts the largest and most visually annoying cube, dragging it to the center. Carefully, he opens one side, which turns out to be a lid. On the inside of the lid is a circle of light bulbs, a makeup mirror as it turns out, which now lights his startled face. Inside the cube, he finds a jar of cold cream and a towel. In this moment he realizes that all he need do is remove the makeup from his face to end this torture. That done, he sings a song of triumph, his back to the footlights, and closes the lid as the lights fade.

Working on this piece, what I realized more than anything was that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, like any artist caught in a quandary, it’s right there in front of you all the time. Take a deep breath and focus. Instead of thinking about the whole alphabet, you just have to find point A, and point A is always right in front of you. Just as solving the riddle of the cube became the meat of the actor’s performance, finding the solution to my dilemma had itself become the subject of this, my latest work.

© John Kelly 2019

  • Photo by Paula Court