Movement as Conversation in No Hero

There is no protagonist in Alex Ketley’s No Hero, as its title would suggest. More notable for a contemporary dance piece, perhaps, is that in smaller sections, even when the multimedia work’s live dancers perform solos, they do not quite become centerpieces. Instead, they remain always in conversation—with a projected dancer, an interviewee, or the landscape of the American West itself.

Even in form, No Hero resists categorization as one kind of work or another, merging documentary film with live dance performance; dance with spoken word; interviews with long landscape shots; written narration with snippets of poetry. The prerecorded portion does not take precedence over the dancers presently interacting with it, or vice versa. Instead,they complement one another in a gentle back-and-forth tug of audience attention. This decentralization is a large part of what ultimately makes the work so intimate, as if, over and over again, the audience is made witness to a fleeting moment of personal connection.

Ketley began this project in 2012 with a tour of the Western U.S., talking to and dancing for and with a wide range of people for whom dance takes on a different significance than the glitz and glamor of a city stage. Away from evening gowns and champagne and high society, the performance dimension of dance seems to melt away. It is not for the sake of big crowds, good reviews, or lasting fame that the individuals Ketley interviews and showcases choose to engage with dance: it is an art form at its purest, a means of communication.

Consider the couple that Ketley and his assistant for the documentary filming, Aline Wachsmuth, speak with in a lonely trailer park. The exchange is narrated by a live dancer, who steps up to a microphone to both speak and move, her body mirroring her words. Through her we hear the couple explain that the extent of their relationship with dance is “dancing out of debt.” Wachsmuth then dances for them, and we move seamlessly from narration to video footage. The couple sit with their backs to the camera, so we cannot see the couple’s faces, but as Wachsmuth moves, their emotional response becomes palpable. We know explicitly, from the narration, how the couple later articulated their feelings to Ketley and Wachsmuth—but in that shot of their backs as they sit transfixed, we gain a privileged view of that connection being forged: a deeply impactful conversation held between someone who has studied and practiced dance extensively, and people who have never much thought about dance at all.

A similar moment occurs near the end of the piece, but with an important alteration. This time, when we watch Wachsmuth dance in near silence in the sitting room of a grandmother who has just explained how she used to love going to dance halls when she was a teenager, the camera angle has changed: the audience views Wachsmuth from behind, and the grandmother’s face is in full view. None of the interviews Ketley features in the documentary component include guiding questions, or him in the shot, and this particular exchange remains entirely without narration. When Wachsmuth shares her movement here in a very personal place, in the grandmother’s home as she sits comfortably on a chair, it is as if the audience no longer needs narration as an interpreter.

As the grandmother’s animated recounting of her dance halls days attests, dance can facilitate not just one-on-one connection, but also community building, as is the case with Western traditions like line dancing. This social aspect inspires the most whimsical of No Hero’s sections, in which the audience hears a caller, who has just spoken about his love for teaching line dance, call out dance steps as though the stage has become a dance hall. His image has faded away from the projected screen, but three live dancers have stepped up to play their parts with an energizing sense of fun, looking at one another with frequent, bubbly smiles as they throw themselves into Ketley’s choreography. It’s in a different style from line dancing, but they follow the caller, and though they execute with technical precision, they act deliberately like amateurs—friends coming together to enjoy a way to pass the time.

This social interlude is a refreshing departure from the weightier mood of most of the work, which stems from a focus on communion, rather than a broader sense of community. Even when the dancers come together for full ensemble sections, much of the choreography involves partnering, and some of the most affecting sections of choreography are partner work. One such duet takes place in front of a projected backdrop of open road—from the sped-up perspective of a car driving down a lonely country road, the video moves through the soft brown hues of desert. As the dancers embrace and pull away from one another, their emotional journey seems to travel along this road, as well, an effect that heightens each time they move along the downstage-upstage axis.

The landscape of the American West, and muted signs of human development thereupon, features heavily in No Hero, which successfully evokes a powerful sense of place. Part of the reason moments of human communion appear so powerful—the reason they exist at all in the way that they do, in this space—is the unique physical composition of this part of the country that allows human settlements to grow large only in isolation, with urban oases nestled among large swathes of land that seem too wild, dry, or rocky to support humans at all.

In perhaps the most striking sequence of the piece—its arresting opening—the documentary footage shows Wachsmuth dancing in a series of dramatic Western environments, her clothing and style of movement remaining constant on a rocky outcropping by the sea, on a snow-covered forest floor as new flakes fall from the sky, in a windswept desert. She does not dance alone, however: one of the live dancers mirrors her on stage, following the same sequence of movement but with a slight delay or slightly ahead. This artistic misalignment forces a relationship of call-and-response, not one of synchronicity, and changes what could be a doubled solo into a conversation. Just as Wachsmuth speaks out to the live dancer from the vast empty realm of immense natural backdrops and feeble human impositions, such as a run-down barn; so too does the live dancer speak out to the audience.

It was that ghostly quality of the Western landscape that moved one of Ketley’s interviewees to settle down in a small, nearly-abandoned town with desert encroaching and reclaiming on all sides. A performer who had spent decades doing shows in New York, she felt, upon entering this town, that it was calling out to her. She stayed and built her own beautifully painted opera house, and danced six nights a week until her health made that routine no longer feasible. She explains to Ketley and Wachsmuth that although she danced often to an empty room, the dance was still fulfilling. The audience is not important—a theme No Hero returns to again and again, to great effect.

In Stanford’s Roble Dance Studio, an intimate venue with no formal stage and very minimal separation between performers and audience members, the idea that “audience” is not required and not necessarily useful came across successfully. Attendees are not treated by this work as passive receptors, or people passing judgment, or those seeking to be entertained, with a singular show-as-object at the center of attention. No Hero aims instead to be one part of an exchange.

Ultimately, the work puts forward, relationships forged through dance are more personal in the American West, and movement can speak to that part of humanity that is solitary, adventurous, free; rooted in the landscape, and reaching out to connect with its fellow thinly-spread inhabitants. It is a different kind of communication than what mainstream urban arts consumers are used to, but by the time No Hero’s performers take their final bow, the piece has opened up a conversation with each person watching.

The Stanford TAPS production of ‘No Hero’ took place May 25-27, 2017. For more information about this production, visit the TAPS website. For more information about Alex Ketley and The Foundry, visit alexketley.com.

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