An Interview with Alex Ketley, Director of ‘Swan Lake: Recalibrated’ and Postmodern Romantic

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When I watched Swan Lake: Recalibrated in late February, I was immediately struck by the exploration of the blurred lines between movement and language. “Bodies” didn’t even come to mind as they normally do when I watch dancers move; it seemed as if human ties dissolved entirely into a unique kind of motion. The darkness of Swan Lake was clearly palatable, but this time fragmented through an abstract, modern lens.

Created by Alex Ketley, a professor in the Dance Department and director of The Foundry in San Francisco, Swan Lake: Recalibrated boasted a small, yet incredibly talented ensemble. Held at the back of Memorial Auditorium, the set consisted of a dimly lit white diamond-shaped floor, rusted asymmetrical poles, and video projections on a hanging sculpture. Most importantly, the set was very intimate and compact to experiment with how audience members experience performance space.

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The production’s narrative only vaguely resembled the much-loved classic, and instead focused on peculiar kind of movement. Alyssa Wright (’16) of the ensemble notes, “The movement was reliant on more than just the physical. There’s so much emotion, thought, complexity within each flex of the foot or opening of the hand. There’s an organic, intimate relationship that the dancer fosters with the movement.” Ketley retained much of the traditional ballet movement, but also incorporated dynamic angles and fluid sequences for a post-modern feel. Supplementing the movement was composer Les Struck’s diverse and volatile score that evoked tension and drama throughout the performance.

Toward the close of the show, poet Carol Snow emerged from the audience and together with the “Swan” performed a unique dance-dialogue sequence. It felt both strange and right; Carol and the Swan read their poems in sequence as the Swan continued to dance harrowingly. Cast member William Funk (‘16) says, “The first time we watched the scene, you could have heard a pin drop. It perfectly illuminated the concept of the production as a reinterpretation of the Swan’s perspective. The dancer was discussing the act of portraying a swan and Carol was reacting as an audience member.” The dialogue allowed for the “Swan” dancer to express how she emotionally and physically felt portraying a swan.

Reinventing an iconic piece within a genre of dance that values custom is a daunting task, yet Ketley’s production was seamless. Swan Lake: Recalibrated didn’t take the traditional road, but gave tradition a push with heightened aesthetics, movement, and delivery.

Check out an interview with choreographer Alex Ketley for the inside scoop:

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Stanford Arts Review: What is your background with dance?

Alex Ketley: I started dancing when I was seven years old. My mother, who fell in love with ballet watching the New York City Ballet while she was in college, signed me up at a small modern school in my hometown of Columbia, MD. Pretty immediately I fell in love with the world of dance. Moving through these strange rituals (exercises), staying up late rehearsing pieces to unusual music with strange costumes, it felt like I had landed in the tangible, fun, creative world that I had always somehow craved as a shy artistic kid. From seven to fourteen I had a number of modern and post-modern teachers, who really introduced me creatively to the form. At fourteen it was recommended I take a ballet class. I did, and I was absolutely hooked. I trained at the Washington Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and then when I was 19 I joined the San Francisco Ballet which is what brought me out West. I had always had a deep feeling that I wanted to choreograph. I danced for the ballet for 4 years, and then left to begin choreographing and follow that inspiration. I’ve been choreographing in San Francisco and throughout the United States and Europe for the past 15 years. It’s been a wonderful ride!

Why did you want to “recalibrate” Swan Lake in particular?

I wanted to recalibrate the mechanisms in the background of Swan Lake that I felt make the piece enduring. For instance, its sense of duplicity, and clarity. I also had many thoughts regarding the ballerina’s role in Swan Lake, and how in essence this is a lonely trip she makes across the landscape of Swan Lake (this inspired the narration of the poem). In many ways the entire ballet pivots on her experiences, and historically the role of the Swan is nearly the singular most iconic role for a ballerina. There is so much yearning, and verging in the classical work, it’s those types of background emotions that I wanted to investigate in a contemporary fashion.

What genre (s) of dance would you classify this under?

I am a contemporary choreographer. An artist friend once said I was a post-modern romantic. My choreography is constructed not by how things look graphically, but rather how movement feels and elicits emotional response in the body. I spend hours improvising and choreographing, and rarely with a mirror. My movement vocabulary feels informed by many different things; my background in classical and contemporary dance, a deep interest in the fine arts, and my lifelong practice as a rock climber.

What made the movements unique?

The movement takes everyday gestures that are typically used unconsciously and reframes them in an intentional and complex way. So on one hand the movements feel familiar and recognizable, but their usage feels intricate. It’s framing that everything we do is truly dance, or capable of being imbued with a dance intentionality. Movement for me is not about showing the heroic athletic body in some graphic way, but rather curious about how movement is really the pathway to our entire interior landscape.

Could you expand upon the Carol Snow scene?

I asked the poet Carol Snow to take the libretto of Swan Lake and interpret it somehow. She came back to me with a text that was partially from the perspective of the ballerina or swan, as well as many other ways of seeing the story of Swan Lake. At first I thought of having her just read this text in the performance, but then it seemed to make more sense and feel more immediate to have this become an actual conversation. Holding on to the choreography and text simultaneously the way the dancer Aline Wachsmuth did is like speaking two languages at the same time. It’s very hard and I am very happy it was not me trying to do it!

What did this production mean to you?

I feel very proud of the production. When I was first asked to explore Swan Lake as a project at Stanford, I was excited and incredibly nervous about how little I knew what I would do! Even though I come from a ballet background, I had never investigated a narrative classical work in any way. The comfort for me, was knowing that some of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on have been the ones that I was the most lost. The Stanford dancers, and all the other collaborators that invested in the project were wonderful collaborators as we wondered and navigated our way to the final performance. I learned a lot through the process, and I’m glad that the work resonated with people the way that it did.

Stanford TAPS presents “Swan Lake Recalibrated” from Stanford TAPS on Vimeo.

 

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