2014 Lab Artist: Alex Ketley
Alex Ketley is a freelance choreographer, teacher, and the director of The Foundry, a contemporary dance company based in San Francisco. Formerly a classical dancer with the San Francisco Ballet (1994-1998), he performed a wide range of classical and contemporary repertory including the work of William Forsythe, James Kudelka, and George Balanchine in San Francisco and on tour throughout the world. In 1998 he left the San Francisco Ballet to co-found The Foundry in order to explore his deepening interests in choreography, improvisation, mixed media work, and collaborative process. The Foundry has produced fifteen full evening-length works that have received extensive support from the public, funders and the press, as well as a number of single-channel video pieces that have screened at international video festivals.
Ketley’s 2012 No Hero project took him and a dancer from his company through rural parts of the West to explore what social dance and concert dance meant to people. They met with strangers in RV parks, small restaurants and their homes, videotaping discussions about the role of dance in their lives; in return for these disclosures, Ketley and his colleague danced small impromptu performances. This series of surprisingly profound and moving exchanges culminated in a dance film that juxtaposed the interviews with the performances danced for people in living rooms, social halls and outdoors. You can watch excerpts from this dance film HERE.
In August 2014, Ketley embarked on a five-week residency with VPL where the aim was for this choreographer to become acquainted with small rural communities in Southern Vermont and their dance cultures. By connecting with a variety of community organizations and social dance groups, VPL hoped to get a deep look at the small towns’ social, cultural and agrarian life.
This VPL residency is made possible with support from the Vermont Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and VPL’s Creation Fund donors.
Interview with Alex Ketley
VPL: Tell us a little about yourself and your relationship to dance.
Alex: I started dancing when I was 7 years old and have been deeply engaged in the form for 34 years. Dancing is the way I interface and understand the world. And I feel very fortunate, that I have been able to investigate dance in such a wide range of ways, from dancing for a world renown ballet company, many contemporary companies, developing my own choreography, and teaching extensively. Dance is quite beautiful, and multifaceted in how people apply it as an art form and enjoy it, so I feel lucky to engage it on a daily basis.
VPL: What was your impulse for "No Hero" ?
Alex: I had traveled extensively in the rural West as a rock climber, and had met lots of wonderful and interesting people in those communities. Somehow though, my identity as an artist and choreographer felt very rooted in urban settings, where contemporary dance work is more prevalent. Somehow I wanted to devise a working method that would help traverse this urban / rural divide. So I decided the best way to do this was to travel for five weeks, and talk with strangers we met about their experience with dance, and in return offer on the spot to do a small performance for those strangers in the diners, RV parks, and homes in which we were interacting. All of those interactions were filmed, and then that was turned into a projection that was used within the live piece. This similar to what we are doing here in Vermont.
The original project in this research trilogy was created three years ago, and it investigated what dance and concert dance means to people throughout communities in the rural West. The title "No Hero" comes from me feeling that in much concert dance, there are a little of persistent heroic ideals at play, such as dancers need to be super athletic, beautiful, flexible, young, etc. "No Hero" was my way of reflecting the idea that dance is available and accessible to anyone, and doesn't need to be buffeted by these ideas. (http://www.alexketley.com/Site/No_Hero.html)
This summer we worked on the second part of this trilogy in the rural South, in collaboration with an amazing artist Miguel Gutierrez. That project will premiere in the fall of 2015.
Here in Vermont we have stayed in one place, so we have had the chance to interact with this community in a much more intimate way. We have had a month here in Vermont, so what we share at the Bellow's Falls Opera House on September 11th will be a rough, but fairly finished, draft of a number of the different sections. We'll continue working on the Vermont piece throughout the fall to make it into a more finished work.
VPL: So tell us about your research process - how does it work? And how you are involving our collaborator Sarah Woods in your residency at VPL to create "No Hero Vermont"?
Alex: Sarah worked with me in the original Western No Hero for just the live performance and touring, but had none done the traveling research part. Since she was so intimate with the original work, I wanted her to have the chance to work with communities similar to how we developed the first project.
Typically we would meet a stranger and strike up conversation and talk for a while. Eventually if the person asked us where we were from or what we were doing, we would then introduce the project, and ask if they had any dance stories. If they did, we would film those stories, and then offer a small dance in return. What is different about this project, is that many of the people who we have interviews are now performing with us live on the 11th.
VPL: What are you discovering?
Alex: Everyone we have talked to has had a really different reason that dance has been important to them. It's a very personal and intimate art form in certain ways, so I think it really serves to reveal something deeper about each person as each story is unique.
What I love about these projects is, because dance is an intimate expression, when people tell their stories it always feels like they also offer something personal about their lives. So we get to know strangers in this close way, and from that get to understand a place or community better.