Reframing Dance in the Rural South: A Conversation with Alex Ketley

Alex Ketley dances for a customer in a diner in Alabama. Photo courtesy Alex Ketley

Last Sunday, Margaret Jenkins facilitated a conversation about the practices of resistance and activism in the arts, which have been rekindled in the aftermaths of the last presidential elections by the current administration’s policies and discourse. The panel included artist Larry Arrington, performance artist Dohee Lee, dancer, writer, and equity analyst Tammy Johnson and Afro Futurist conjure artist Amara T. Smith. All panelists agreed on the need to engage in deep listening and participate in “uncomfortable” conversations to start to address and repair the current national divide.

Coincidentally, deep listening and dialogue were part of the groundwork for Deep South, a piece that Bay Area choreographer Alex Ketley is presenting at ODC as part of the Walking Distance Dance Festival this coming June. The research for Deep South took Ketley and artist Miguel Guttierez through the rural South, navigated largely by chance operations, where impromptu conversations with locals and on-the-spot performances in unconventional places such as people’s living room or church unfolded. Although these conversations happened before the last presidential election in a different political context, they at times highlighted the striking socio-economical and cultural differences within the country, a reality that the majority of the public woke up to dumbfounded last November 9.

Preceded by No Hero and No Hero Vermont, Deep South is the third in a trilogy that questions what dance means in rural areas, removed from its traditional centers of presentation. Ketley and I talked about his research, travels and process.

Marie Tollon: Why a trilogy?

Alex Ketley: Initially there was only the thought to explore the West like we did in the original No Hero. I had a long affinity for the West generally and the rural West specifically. I had been an outdoor enthusiast throughout the West which brought me to many different communities, and I for years was curious of a way to rectify what felt like different parts of myself known to different communities. In urban environments, I was know as an artist, choreographer, and dancer, but in many rural communities it seemed like an understanding of what that meant seemed really remote. So I decided to research the rural West and that project was tremendously rewarding.

Wanting to do a similar process somewhere else, but wanting to change the parameters, I decided on the rural Northeast and deep South. In the Northeast we partnered through Vermont Performance Lab, and the people we chanced on actually performed in the final work. For the South I wanted to collaborate with a non-white artist, and Miguel [Gutierrez] was the perfect fit to really investigate what otherness means and what a collision of cultures results in. So it is a research trilogy that kind of emerged organically. As a trio it feels pretty concluding to me.

MT: What places did you travel to/through and what did your research consist of?

AK: For Deep South we started in Austin and then moved East with the only guiding principle to stay in rural parts of the South and to stay lost and see what we found. We moved in a haphazard fashion from Texas to Virginia going to nearly all the States in between.

Research consisted of trying to really get a sense of the place and acutely listening to the places we were in as we traveled. More directly we would meet strangers. The otherness was very obvious which generally sparked a conversation as to why we were there. This led to us explaining and / or performing for these strangers. This served as a platform to then talk to these strangers about their lives, and what (if any) experience they had with dance. It felt like a fascinating overview process regarding the South as a place and idea and then an intimate and more pinpointed way of interacting with people.

MT: What aspects did you encounter when traveling throughout the South?

AK: The South has a disgusting history of abject violence. Much of the world does (as a friend recently pointed out to me), but something about the South [is that it seems not] to be able to let go of its past. The colonized South was built on slavery. But somehow a pride in place, which I think is very valid, gets distorted without a deep acknowledgement of the South’s wretched history (not far away history as well). So I found the place absolutely fascinating in all its complication — that people on one hand could be very warm and gracious and then also within breaths be very casually racist; that the landscape was both beautiful and dying. The Confederate flags, monuments, and plantations are still venerated. The confluence of poverty and religion. It feels like a world stuck in time and at war with itself somehow.

MT: What guided your choice in selecting the images that appear on the screen and the stories that are told?

AK: For all the projects the editing has to be pretty ruthless. There is too much footage, much of which is compelling, and you need to just work with the absolute gems — so the work doesn’t end up too long. For Deep South, I was really interested in reflecting the brightest experiences and confusions we had as travelers.

MT: What directions did you give to the dancers?

AK: In the traveling, virtually nothing. The only way the process makes sense is for interactions with strangers to evolve organically. Nothing authentic happens if you push too hard for some type of prescribed result. So a lot of it is just acknowledging being an observant lost person, and hoping that some interesting exchange comes about. For the live component of the performance the direction is very extensive.

MT: Can you talk about your collaboration with Miguel Gutierrez, particularly in terms of what it exposed in your conversations and encounters with people and how that differed from your experience traveling and doing research with your partner for No Hero?

AK: Miguel is a brilliant artist, deeply observant, and an icon of the queer community. When we traveled together just the two of us, I think nearly everyone we met assumed we were a couple. Being in the rural South, and having people presume you are a gay couple, and then you sing and dance for them, absolutely alter the entire landscape of how interactions unfold. For instance, many people offered stories about their otherness completely unsolicited. I think this was a way for them to subtly say: “Whatever you two are, it’s ok.” So otherness and queerness became a lens I wouldn’t have naturally looked through if I hadn’t been in conversation with Miguel. I wanted to challenge how these projects functioned, and in collaboration with Miguel I think we achieved that.

MT: With this project, you are questioning what dance and performance mean to the lives of people in rural parts of the United States, who typically have no or little exposure to contemporary concert dance and what contemporary dance means when it is removed from its typical development and performance environments, most namely art-centric urban centers. Can you share some of the considerations, if not answers, that you came to in regards to these questions, after these months of research? Did this project affect how you make work? And if so, how?

AK: In me I have a deep sadness that concert dance, or fine art performance dance has become so rarefied and segregated from culture as a whole. As a ballet dancer I was once part of this very select understanding of who could be a dancer. So somehow as I’ve continued to work I have always wanted dance to express the vastness and beauty of what it means to be human — our great glorious highs, our mundane, and our exquisitely flawed. Even the title No Hero was my way of pushing against what I see too often in the dance world, an adherence to heroic ideals (beautiful people, athletic, accomplished, skill, control, etc.). I believe that beauty exists in people when we give them a chance, and that dance can serve as a forum to fast track to more intimate interactions than just talking. I also want the process of making work to be consequential. There are thousands of dances in the world, some are wonderful and some awful. There is space for all of them. But I am curious [about] what place of risk an artist has put themselves in when creating. This can take so many forms, but I myself want to place my process in spaces I can’t control and force me to learn through adaptation. Somewhere for me beauty sits in this confused place.

MT: What tools did you use/create to navigate the space between the vast and diverse experience of traveling, doing research, performing in small, non conventional settings and the restrictions imposed by the making of a work for a more traditional performance venue like ODC?

AK: It’s a rough process. The traveling is the artwork, and exists as infinitely more fascinating than any dance piece I could ever make. So what we have with the performance is an artifact to share from our travels. I try and work as hard as possible to sculpt the live performance as a direct result of things encountered in the traveling.

I think my time in the South and our process there imprinted me. It made me wonder about the stillness and heat, the racism baked into the ground, the beautiful fascinating people we met, how we are all flawed, my discomfort with the confluence of massive amounts of religion living hand in hand with poverty, how our country has literally forgotten entire parts of the country (given up on them), why people can be wonderful and awful — all these different things rumble around in me and then I wonder how or why movement could reflect any of that. Or how the film can convey that as well. It’s an odd and tricky process, and one that I absolutely love.