We often talk of a generation of queer artists we’ve lost to the AIDS epidemic—and indeed we’ve lost far too many. But happily, many such artists living with HIV survived the worst years and are still alive and well, making great work. Two of them are dancer/choreographer Robert La Fosse and singer/performer John Kelly.
In the mid-1980s, La Fosse was invited by the legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins to join the New York City Ballet as a principal dancer, following nearly a decade with American Ballet Theater; he went on to star in Broadway shows, then to teach and choreograph his own works. Kelly is well-known in the downtown Manhattan arts scene for his decades of performance projects, which often channeled iconic artworks and popular figures including the Mona Lisa, Egon Schiele, and Joni Mitchell.
Together, the two old friends are staging a new, La Fosse-choreographed retelling of early modernist composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale from Feb. 13 to 15 at NYTB/Chamber Works in New York City. The Soldier’s Tale draws from an old Russian folk story about a soldier who makes a deal with the devil, trading his fiddle for unlimited wealth.
On a chilly Friday, I caught up with the two of them at Danspace Project inside the bohemian landmark St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, where the piece will be staged, to talk about making new work out of an old story—and how decades living with HIV have shaped their art and lives. We spoke just before the cast began rehearsing a particularly tricky sequence in which the soldier fends off the devil with his fiddle. (Infamously, Stravinsky’s work constantly changes time signatures, or the “beats” the dancers must count off.)
Tim Murphy: Thanks for meeting, Robert and John. So let’s talk about this piece, first of all, The Soldier’s Tale.
Robert La Fosse: This is a piece I’ve been wanting to do ever since I started choreography. I love the Stravinsky music; it’s very beloved, especially in the dance community. It has extraordinary rhythms. But as for the story, Jerome Robbins always said, “Why do you need to tell this story now?” Well, this story is about selling your soul to the devil. So I feel like right now, today in fact [the Republican-led Senate was moving swiftly toward acquitting Trump of impeachment charges], look at what’s happening. These senators completely don’t want to know the truth. So the story is about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil for wealth and then tries to regain his soul once he realizes that despite his extreme wealth, he’s not happy. So he plays the devil in a game of cards.
TM: What is the lineage of this story?
RLF: It was a Russian folk tale, then a musical theater piece by Igor Stravinsky in 1918. It only ever had one dancer, the princess. But we’ve tried to take away the narrator as much as possible and give that voice to a Greek chorus, which is the six dancers, and have the scenes between the soldier—who is danced by Stephen Hanna, who was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet—and the devil play out in dance.
TM: And John, what’s your role?
John Kelly: I’m playing the devil. I’m always cast as a non-human other—a moth, a dog man—weird, menacing, bizarre entities. I like those roles. I don’t like being normal. I’m going for a poetic menace.
RLF: He’s not just menacing and mean. He’s very charming, which is important for the story, because you don’t just sell your soul to a horrible-acting person. I’ve heard this about Trump, that he can be charming. And John’s a dancer. A lot of what he’s masterful at is creating a character through movement and voice. We’ve known each other 40 years. I danced in a piece of John’s in 1993, about Barbette, the female impersonator and trapeze dancer.
JK: Yes, Robby and I met through a mutual friend who died in the ’90s.
TM: Which brings us to the question of how you both feel that HIV has shaped your work, lives, and careers.
JK: I just had the 30th anniversary of my diagnosis—December 14, 1989.
RLF: I found out I was positive whenever the test came out, 1984 or 1985. Art saved me, because I went into a severe case of denial and put my blinders on. My career was taking off, I was working with Baryshnikov and didn’t have time to stop and think about HIV. Some people got into activism and showed up for everyone. I had a boyfriend in ACT UP. I didn’t have time for that. People were dying all around me, but my denial was so strong I just blocked it out.
Then in 1994, two years before the protease inhibitors came on the market, I went on a trial—and I knew within six weeks that the drugs were working, because I’d had a plantar wart on my toe for years, and suddenly it evaporated.
TM: Did you have side effects?
JK: [to the tune of “Allelujah”] Diarrhea! Diarrhea!
RLF: You didn’t know if you were going to fart or shit.
JK: Remember when we had to take liquid Norvir? It was like gasoline—horrifying.
RLF: The side effects were debilitating, and you thought, “Is this what it’s always going to be like?” It’s hard to talk about that era, because I feel grateful [for having survived] but also a little bit of regret that I didn’t show up for people. So now I’m good at changing that around. I have people in my life who are sick in other ways now, and I make a conscious effort to be there for them.
TM: Robert, did you keep your HIV status to yourself?
RLF: No, I told my parents immediately, and most people I danced with knew. I was kissing ballerinas on stage.
TM: John, what was your experience like?
JK: I lost my first partner in 1982. That was pretty much when my career was starting in clubs, and from then on, pretty much every piece I ever did was on some level with my relationship to the epidemic. That was my activism, making work, which also saved my life. I was never sick except for pneumonia, which landed me in the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where my roommate, an older Black gentleman, died. But I saw my work as my place, my role, and that’s how I processed things.
TM: So who are you both now, compared to back then? How have you changed?
RLF: I’m someone who’s had decades of experience working with some of the greatest people in the theater, and I have a lot of knowledge now about what I’m doing. I partied too much and had to stop doing that, but I think that’s what makes you a greater artist and person. I’m more grateful than I’ve ever been. When I was a kid, I just basically wanted everything, and now I want to do as much as I can to give back. I have wear-and-tear, but I’m grounded.
JK: I have no idea how much this virus has fucked up my capacity to be intimate, or how much grief I may still be holding. There’s no way of knowing. So work continues to be my salvation. I’m single. That’s kind of weird. I’m dealing with not just serodiscordancy [bias for being positive] but ageism. I’m here to make work. I’m still scrounging for money, but I’ve mastered my craft.
TM: What do you both do for self-care and joy?
JK: I do yoga. I started going back to ballet class three years ago. Singing is therapeutic for me. I go to art colonies once or twice a year, which is a way to get out of the city and make art. But it’s also just a way of coping with the city having changed so much.
RLF: I have a house in Pennsylvania that I share with my friend [HIV-specializing psychotherapist] Laura [Pinsky], where I visit [my friend, longtime HIV/AIDS activist] Peter Staley all the time. It’s in the woods, and that’s my salvation. I’ve lost my appetite for the city. I don’t go out dancing anymore. I’m not in a relationship, and I don’t even know if I really want to be. It’s really fucked up. I like being by myself, and I can’t imagine sharing things—but you never know!