Bridging the urban-rural divide through dance

Choreographer Alex Ketley comes to VPL to explore Vermont%u2019s traditions

BELLOWS FALLS — For the past month, San Francisco based choreographer Alex Ketley and dancer Sarah Woods have been engaged in a four-week research and development residency at Vermont Performance Lab (VPL), getting to know what social dance and concert dance means to Vermonters.

“Although I have often performed works in California, New York and Europe, my entire dance career has been for people who live in cities,” Ketley says. “I wanted to find out what dance, in particular, contemporary dance, might mean to the cultures of rural America, while at the same time exploring the area's own local dance traditions.”

On Thursday Sept. 11, at 7 p.m., at the Bellows Falls Opera House, VPL will show what Ketley has been up to.

The choreographer and the local people with whom he has worked this past month will present a multi-media evening of live dance and the showing of No Hero Vermont, an informal film about the artist's travels and adventures in dance in Vermont.

VPL says the film “captures surprisingly profound and moving exchanges between choreographer Ketley and Vermonters through discussions and dances performed for people in their living rooms, social halls, and outdoors.”

VPL Arts Residency Coordinator Katherine Partington, says that Ketley “has a rich history as a choreographer, making work on the very popular TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, as well as receiving the very first Princess Grace Choreography Mentorship Co-Commision Award to develop this No Hero project.”

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 15 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.

No Hero is a project that came about when Ketley felt that he could no longer create dance in the hidden confines of a dance studio. He believed that the only way to “really create work and challenge himself” was to travel extensively throughout various parts of rural America in order to discover what the people who live there think about dance.

Ketley visited the American West and then the deep South, where he created dances in diverse places as shopping malls, hotel lobbies and people's homes. He filmed the people he met and their impression of what dance means to them, as well as the dance traditions they learned from their own communities.

Ketley writes at The Foundry's website that his inspiration for this project came from photographers like Stephen Shore, who captured and reflected the broad America of his particular time, and Mary Ellen Mark, who intimately captured the diversity of America's people.

The culmination of this investigation was a series of performances where the company took the captured video material, dances, and texts gathered from the experiences on the road and created an evening length work.

“No Hero is a study on our country and its tremendous diversity, beauty, confusion and economic and social stratification,” wrote Ketley.

This past month, Ketley has continued his study of dance in rural America with No Hero Vermont.

“VPL arranged for us to live in Bellows Falls, where we were able to intimately interact with the community,” says Ketley. “That town turned out to be a very good place to work on this project because the people there are tightly mixed.

“But we used Bellows Falls merely as a landing pad to explore the people of all Southern Vermont. We have gone as far north as Quechee, south to Brattleboro and Guilford, and even over to New Hampshire a bit. Yet we didn't want to reach too far, because we hope to avoid traveling around as much as we did in the deep South or the West.”

Ketley believes this project will be very similar with his other investigations of rural America.

“I began the No Hero project in the West, because I already knew that area a little bit, since my hobby is rock-climbing,” he says. “My fiance and I took off across the country, stopping and meeting strangers at places like trailer parks where we would ask them if they had any stories about dance.”

Ketley says that they met many amazing people.

“We would film their stories, and then give them an instant micro performance of a dance of our own,” he explains. “We would ask what they thought about contemporary dance. Many had never seen any contemporary dance or, for that matter, even knew what it was. Some of their responses to what we showed them were very rich, while others might be a simpler, 'Wow, that's cool.' Through these interviews, we were trying to look at their culture and see the interface of life and dance.”

The project in Vermont, however, is different from past No Heroes in one fundamental way.

“In both the West and the South, we would usually drop into a community for an afternoon, record what we needed, and go on our way,” says Ketley. “But in Vermont, we were with the community the entire month. Consequently, we were able to develop more complex relationships with the people we met, and we found that the stories we were told were getting deeper into a idea of community.”

Ketley found Vermonters to be very warm and welcoming.

“The people we met often asked us to meet other friends. And we would sometimes invite them to join us in dance. For instance, in Brattleboro, we met a remarkable woman named Marie who was in her 80s, When we asked her if we could teach her our choreography, she said she would love that.”

In 2012, Ketley made a No Hero performance piece out of his experience in the West, which was greeted to great acclaim. He plans to begin working on the material he gathered in the South into second stage work in January, and the Vermont material after that.

“I take all the material back to San Francisco and flesh it out into a coherent work, using the film and the dances created by the local people,” he says. “While all the elements of the finished product should be there in the work-in-progress that people come to see at the Bellows Falls Opera House, in the finished work, I try to take these disparate pieces and sculpt them into a single piece that reaches a natural conclusion.”

Working in three different sections of America, Ketley found that both the attitude towards dance and the native dance traditions differed.

“While contra dancing is very popular in New England, you see very little of it out West, where line or square dancing is much more popular. I certainly am exploring this interest in contra dance when I am here. I joined the contra dancing at the Stone Church in Brattleboro, as well as the annual Dawn Dance on Labor Day weekend. At both places, I found great material for No Hero Vermont.”

One of things No Hero challenges is the prejudice both rural and urban people feel about each other.

“When I told people in San Francisco that I was going out West or to the South, they would ask if I wasn't afraid of running into a bunch of rednecks,” he says. “Similarly, in rural areas, the local people intimated that sophisticates in cities can not understand their way of life. I hope this work helps undermine those preconceptions and show that both groups have a stake in, and can join together through, contemporary dance.”

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