Deep South: Reviews

The Sarasota Herald/Tribune
November 2015

“Alex Ketley is both choreographer and explorer, artist and humanist. His work dips a toe into the realm of anthropology, using dance as the connective tissue to examine, without affectation or expectation, the diversity that is America and the human race.

“Deep South,” the final segment of Ketley’s trilogy exploring what dance and performance means to people in rural areas of the country far from the contemporary concert stage, had its premiere Friday night as the first performance in The Ringling Museum’s New Stages series for the season. Like “No Hero,” the trilogy’s first section, which was presented at the Ringling in 2014, its commitment to authenticity is evident, its generosity of spirit unquestionable.

As was “No Hero,” which was based on Ketley’s travels in the rural West, “Deep South” – drawn from a month-long summer “wander” from Texas to Virginia with fellow choreographer Miguel Gutierrez - is a blend of documentary footage and live performance.  Some beautiful and engaging moments: Gutierrez dancing free-form under the light of a street lamp outside a Merle Norman cosmetics boutique; a soft piano accompaniment as the green of a Southern landscape is gradually obscured by a rainstorm; an African-American woman dancing alone in a disheveled junk shop, recalling the days when she used to dance with her deceased brother. And the diary-like dialogue segments Ketley has wisely included make the work accessible, even to those whose exposure to contemporary dance, like many of the film’s subjects, may be non-existent.

As a stand-alone piece, “Deep South” is less effective and engaging than was “No Hero.” But I admire Ketley’s commitment to genuinely exposing his experience, flaws and all.  As the final image fills the screen - Gutierrez, slow dancing with the Black woman amidst the chaotic shelves of her shop - we hear the words, “This could only ever be a partial story.” It is indeed that, and one that leaves us wondering about the rest of the tale.”

No Hero: Reviews

The Sarasota Herald/Tribune
March 2014

“After the necessity of food and shelter, dance — or whatever you choose to call the urge to move expressively — is one of mankind's most basic urges. As a wordless means of communication, it has been an important part of ceremonies, rituals, celebrations and story telling since the earliest human civilizations.

But what it means to many today is "concert dance" — performances on a proscenium stage that appeal to a limited audience of sophisticated aficionados and can be bewildering or alienating to anyone else.

Which is why Alex Ketley's "No Hero" is such an important work, one that brings us back to the ancient concept of movement as both a salve for the soul and a mortal bond.

Ketley — who founded The Foundry, a contemporary troupe, after performing with the San Francisco Ballet — and his partner, Aline Wachsmuth, spent five weeks traveling the rural West, talking to locals about what dance means to them. Along the way, he filmed and she performed, often sharing meals and stories with their new acquaintances as well. Projections of characters and chapters from the trip serve as backdrop to live dance on a bare stage performed by Wachsmuth and Foundry dancer Marlie Cuoto.

With Ketley's eye for pictures as well as choreography, the hour-long work is visually stimulating throughout. But "No Hero" — so named because he wanted to strip dance of its characteristic heroic ideals and find out "what part of dance is in all of us" — isn't so much about aesthetics as it is about humanity.

Ketley's genuine interest in and reverence for his subjects and his generosity of spirit — qualities that are reflected back by his subjects — are the compassionate glue that make this more a towering achievement than a mere research experiment. In the end, "No Hero" stands as an engaging and enduring testament to the power of dance to connect even the most disparate among us.”

The San Francisco Bay Guardian
July 2012

Dance meets travelogue in Alex Ketley's vibrant No Hero.

“What a stellar idea to premiere a work called No Hero the weekend after Independence Day. There are no brass bands, flag waving-exercises, or fireworks in Foundry artistic director-choreographer Alex Ketley's delightful and at times funny stage and video creation, which returns to Z Space August 1. Yet Hero is a piece of pure Americana, a tender and amusing tribute to ordinary people and the role that dance may or may not play in their lives.

Tired of thinking of dance as something larger than life, Ketley set out on a month-long trek, camera in hand and lovely dancer Aline Wachsmuth in tow. They traipsed through dusty Western towns and hamlets from Death Valley to Oregon, talking with folks in RV parks and community halls, inside their homes, and outside some shacks. They met Shirley, who remembered the social dances of her youth; motorcyclist Ava and his dog Spirit, who are on the road trying to forget the death of Ava's son; Dwight and Dale, who chuckled over the names of the dances they used to know; and widows who get together every afternoon to teach each other steps they learn from YouTube. Ketley and Wachsmuth also encountered the legendary Marta Beckett, who just recently stopped performing six days a week — at the age of 88 — in an old opera house whether anybody was there to watch or not.

And for all of them Wachsmuth danced. Often she looked shadowy on the video but always organic, stretching her limbs like tendrils, scooping space, and opening herself to forces surging from within. It was fascinating to see the reactions (or rather, lack thereof) of each audience: you couldn't tell whether they were flabbergasted, indifferent, or bemused by this willowy creature in front of them. Ketley kept us guessing.

Back in the decidedly non-rural Bay Area, the two artists took the material and expanded on it for the stage, where Wachsmuth was joined by Sarah Dione Woods. What had been spatially tight but also intimate became expansive and multi-dimensional without losing its rich impulse-driven energy. The choreography often looked as if it had grown out of the screen. A demure waltz exploded into somersaults and exuberant leaps. Mirroring each other, the two women spread out but also intertwined as if trying to morph together. With her back to us, dancing alongside a sunset, Wachsmuth repeated the choreography facing us. But when onscreen a fierce storm kept her off balance, the stage couldn't compete with that drama.

The video images had been edited to create both a contextualization for the stage action but also developed an independent rhythm. Ballad and pop singers — ranging from Ben Howard to Patti Page — added their own voices to this poetic evocation of dance as part of the everyday.”