The burgeoning Savannah Dance Festival will host the East Coast premiere of a daring and thought-provoking performance.
No Hero, created by award-winning choreographer Alex Ketley, is a lot of things: A film, a documentary, social commentary, and of course a live dance performance.
Featuring members of Ketley's company The Foundry — Ketley is also a veteran of the San Francisco Ballet — the multimedia performance is co-sponsored by Stratton and Mary Leopold and happens this Saturday evening at the Jepson Center.
The Foundry will also conduct free master dance classes this Friday at SCAD, Savannah Arts Academy and Garrison Elementary, sponsored by the Savannah Dance Festival. These classes are sponsored by the Savannah Dance Festival and will be free of charge for dance students at each school.
We spoke to Ketley last week.
Walk us through why you started this project, and how it's realized in the performance.
Alex Ketley: I was always curious about what dance means to people in rural parts of the U.S., in particular the American West. I've traveled extensively in the West. As a rock climber pretty much all my life, I developed an affinity for it.
I felt a disconnect with these pieces I'd perform in New York and San Francisco. I always wondered what my art might mean to rural parts of country. So my partner Aline and I traveled for about five weeks through the American West, dancing for people in RV parks and apartments and places like that. Talking to them about fine art, and what dance meant to them. We built a whole film out of that piece.
It's live dance that interacts with the film piece. There are aspects that are just film — like the interviews with people we met.
At some point you guys must have said, how in the world can we do this without seeming condescending to people in "flyover country".
Alex Ketley: Oh yes. We initially had a tremendous allergy at the thought of running up to people and dancing for them. It sounded horrible, embarrassing.
We realized basically the only way it could work at all is to have a genuine connection. For example in Death Valley at an RV park, we were walking past a retired couple. I really like talking to people anyway, so before I mentioned the dance thing we spent a lot of time talking. For a couple days we'd see them in the park sitting around and talking. From that, we'd get around to mentioning that Aline and I are actually dancers. From there, when you have trust and a connection, you can really talk.
There's a real socioeconomic stratification in the fine arts dance world, which is ironic considering how basic a human trait dancing really is.
Alex Ketley: Too many aspects of the dance world are in an echo chamber. Where we are, there's a dance audience who goes to all the dance shows. It's a pocket of the community.
Sometimes dance companies do talk about how to develop new audiences. But to me that's placing the onus on the public. Why doesn't the public come? To me, you have to figure out ways to go out to the public. Think about the mechanics of how dances are made in studios the public has no access to, in a hidden room.
No Hero addresses how we might actually engage different audiences. Instead of going to a small community and performing, this was really a two-way street. We asked, what does dance mean to you and your community? And we got some amazing stories. For example, they'd talk about the old Grange Hall as a real hub of community, with dances every weekend. That's sort of gone away now. Dance was important to people.
In one scene in the film, we're in Oregon and looking for places someone might dance. Someone said, you should to where they teach line dancing classes in the afternoon. We went and there were a bunch of widows who learn dances from YouTube and teach each other. We spent time with them, and learned that dance was important to them, but mostly as a vehicle to support each other. We got the feeling that this was one very important way they came together in a shared experience.
Explain the title, No Hero.
Alex Ketley: Heroic ideals inform a lot of presentations in dance. There's this idea that dancers need to be beautiful, young, thin, fabulous and have superhero abilities. I was realizing how aesthetics limits and frames dance. Dance is really something very primal and important to many people — it doesn't need to be framed in a classical heroic framework.