Interview with Alex Ketley

No Hero

No Hero

Our next NACHMO interview comes from the very talented Alex Ketley. Alex is an independent choreographer and the director of The Foundry. He has worked both onstage and on film, in front of and behind the lens. Read on for some great inspiration and advice!

How did you first get interested in working with a camera?

The very first project I ever did involved a camera. Chris Burns and I had started a dance company (whatever that meant) and we had a tiny studio in our live work space and were making dances. Boring dances. At a point of crisis we wondered why we had left our professional dance jobs to just make another dance. So we had this idea we would buy a video camera (Hi8) and suits and drive to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and improvise on the desert and film those studies. So that's what we did, and as we reviewed the footage we realized it was very silly watching two former ballet dancers leaping around in the desert. But we had driven all that way there so we didn't give up. Many days the dances were awful, and then eventually something unique started to bubble to the surface. I think this is when we finally let go of our notions of dance and just started to actually respond to the environment and the context of being out there. It set the stage for a years worth of work where we used film, improvisation, and the application of environment to see how it affected the generation of movement.

Salt Flat Pieces (1998)

Salt Flat Pieces (1998)

What was an initial struggle and how did you help overcome it?

No Initial struggle. I loved working with the camera. I loved that it was documenting experience but I wasn't necessarily "performing." My father was also a photographer, so I grew up looking at the world through his lens.

How do you find an audience for your film work?

Like many choreographers we did tiny group shows with 50 different small pieces in the program. With the video component people were intrigued in the dance world, but also some galleries wanted to support the projects. So we performed or showed the films pretty early on in traditional theaters, galleries, and raves.

"Imprint" (The Foundry)

"Imprint" (The Foundry)

What do you think is a unique feature of being able to work with a camera vs. working for the stage?

That it captures an actual moment devoid of the distortions that occur when we are performing. I danced for the camera not to create a product put just to see if anything interesting might bubble to the surface. 10 hours of footage for 10 minutes of video. Just capturing, or editing the most resonant moments.

What do you miss in live performance that you would like to see captured more on film?

Intimacy. I like watching dance close. Empathically experiencing what the performer is experiencing. So much of that is lost in huge spaces or distant seating. So much dance is then skewed to reach out across that distance, making the landscape the body expresses a bit garish. When the body is capable of such moving subtleties.

Solo Performance for Tom and Marilyn Rollins. Death Valley RV Park, California

Solo Performance for Tom and Marilyn Rollins. Death Valley RV Park, California

Who are the film creators you enjoy watching, be it with or without movement?

DV8, Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Ultima Vez

Do you submit your work to festivals? Are there specific festivals choreographers can apply to?

I have in the past. Or sometimes I create film for other companies, and then they submit the films.
Any advice for budding choreographers/cinematographers?

Video is an amazing tool. Just do whatever your heart tells you is most right - and really explore that. Don't be precious with the set up - because with the tools we have now you can explore so much in post production. Have fun!

Capacity from Shallowness

Capacity from Shallowness

Alex Ketley is an independent choreographer and the director of The Foundry. Formally a classical dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, he performed a wide range of classical and contemporary repertory in San Francisco and on tour throughout the world. In 1998 he co-created The Foundry in order to explore his deepening interests in choreography, improvisation, mixed media work, and collaborative process. With The Foundry he has been an Artist in Residence at many leading art institutions including Headlands Center for the Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Yard, the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Taipei Artist Village, ODC Theater, the Ucross Foundation, and the Vermont Performance Lab. The Foundry has produced fifteen full evening length works that have received extensive support from the public, funders, and the press, as well as a number of single-channel video pieces that have screened at international video festivals. As a choreographer independent of his work with The Foundry, Ketley has been commissioned to create original pieces for companies and universities throughout the United States and Europe. For this work he has received acknowledgement from the Hubbard Street National Choreographic Competition, the International Choreographic Competition of the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveaur, the National Choo-San Goh Award, the inaugural Princess Grace Award for Choreography, the BNC National Choreographic Competition, three CHIME Fellowships, four Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography residencies, the Gerbode-Hewlett Choreographer Commissioning Award, and the National Eben Demarest Award. His pieces and collaborations have also been awarded Isadora Duncan Awards in the categories of Outstanding Achievement by an Ensemble, Outstanding Achievement in Choreography, and Outstanding Achievement by a Company. Through his long history with AXIS Dance Company, his work To Color Me Different was presented on national television through an invitation from the show So You Think You Can Dance and his film The Gift of Impermanence has screened internationally and won the 2015 Artistry Award at the Superfest International Disability Film Festival. With The Foundry since 2012, he has been deeply engaged in a trilogy of projects entitled No Hero which explore what dance means and how it is experienced by people throughout rural parts of America. The video projection Alex created for No Hero (West) was nominated for a 2012 Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design. Deep South was the third project in the trilogy and was researched in the rural South in collaboration with Miguel Gutierrez and supported by the first Princess Grace Foundation Choreography Mentorship Co-Commission Award (CMCC), a MANCC Media Fellowship, a Kenneth Rainin Foundation New and Experimental Works Grant, and the Historic Asolo Theater. In addition to his Foundry and independent work he is a Lecturer at Stanford University’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) and is Resident Choreographer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, a school that is deeply invested in students learning and growing though the engagement of contemporary choreography and methodologies.

NACHMO Boston dance artist feature: Jordan Jamil Ahmed

National Choreography Month has reinvigorated and redefined my dance-making practice. After two dormant years spent distancing myself from dance and choreography, I spent the latter portion of 2015 coming back into my body and back to dance. NACHMO presented itself as the perfect opportunity to solidify my reawakening in the dance world by motivating me to choreograph for the first time since graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in 2013. Through rehearsals, free workshops, and opportunities to interact with other artists in Boston, NACHMO has given me the foundation to tap back into my interests in choreography. I’m creating to both ask and answer questions I have in my life as an artist and beyond. Most importantly, how does dance connect people? How am I defined by the connections I have created and how can I preserve those connections in movement?

Working both on a solo and collaboratively with Claire Johannes, I have been challenged to push myself as an artist. Within such limited time I have pushed myself in my personal methods of dance-making. I’ve given myself choreographic challenges to create new phrases in every rehearsal while building a larger structure for my performance over the course of the month. What began as an impulse to pay attention to the connections around me has evolved into a larger swath of ideas and movement, ideas that I intend to continue to explore for NACHMO and many performances to come.

Here is the promo video for the upcoming performance:

Plus you can check out some of my previous work:


Interview with Cari Ann Shim Sham

In honor of our new NACHMO Film Project, we have an interview with the fabulous  Cari Ann Shim Sham

Cari Ann Shim Sham* is a wild artist who enjoys hunting edible mushrooms, collecting antique doorknobs, and making magical manipulations of movement.  Known for strong surreal images and precise rhythm of the edit, her visual artistry, opens up the viewer's body through emotional sensation, powerful visuals, provocative sound and engaging movement. Cari Ann has answered some inspiring questions about film and movement.

How did you first get interested in working with a camera?

I grew up around cameras.  My father had a few Canon still cameras and he was always taking chrome photos and my family would look at the slides at night on our slide projector and eat popcorn.  He liked to photograph race cars.  Looking at those photos taught my eye framing, composition, and color.  As I got older, he gave me one of his Canons and I started taking photos.  It wasn't until the early nineties that I stared shooting super 8 and high 8 in the late 80's.  Then in the early 90's and a friend gave me his pxl 2000 camera which shot to cassette tape that I played around with and made some experimental shorts.I got a hand me down handicam video camera in the mid 90's that I shot a bunch of footage on of my dance company Bitch Co. performing at underground raves and art gallery parties in Los Angeles.  

Video was a real fun playful format for me to work with, it was so liberating from the technicalities of still photography with celluloid. I liked playing with the in camera effects and learning what I could do to mess with the picture. I was always interested in getting wild looks out of my images. That is still at the heart of my camera inquiry. 

What was an initial struggle capturing movement on film, and how did you overcome it?

The struggle is always the balance and counterpoint of movement between the subject and the camera. I never plan to overcome that...I continue to work with and through it. 

How do you find an audience for your film work?

I started making dance films with help from the initial launch of the Final Cut Pro Editing Software in 2000 which was given to me as a Christmas present by my boyfriend.  At this time I was living in Los Angeles and Dance Camera West announced its first call for submissions. I submitted two of my films to the new dance film festival and they were both screened.  It snowballed from there. I think it was good timing, luck, and interesting film content that attracted audiences to my work.   

What do you think is a unique feature of being able to work with a camera vs. working for the stage?

Intimacy, control, sound dynamics, color depth, attention to detail and the ability to create something that can repeat exactly/perfectly the same again and again. It is perfection. 

What do you miss in live performance that you would like to see captured more on film?

Mistakes, recovery from the unexpected, I'm always after this as a filmmaker, capturing the human improvisation that comes from something gone array.

What draws your eye to a specific piece when you’re curating a festival?

I don't know until it happens. I will let you know the next time it's always something new and compelling.  What I love about curating dance film is that there are no rules in the genre, so you get the wildest's really the most experimental form right now in film making, I think that is why everyone is flocking to it. 

Who are the film creators you enjoy watching, be it with or without movement?

All films work with movement. Movement of subject, movement of camera, movement of sound, the movement in the footage, movement of the's all movement, that's why I am drawn to cinema.   My favorite filmmakers to watch are Michel Gondry, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Mike Figgis, Sophia Coppola, Lena Dunham, Gaspar Noé, The Cohen Brothers, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Wim Wenders and Thierry De May. 

Are there specific festivals choreographers can apply to?

Film festivals? Yes. Hundreds.  The field is exploding.  Dance Films Association who's screened several of my films and who I recently curated the 2015 Holiday Screening and Party for has a really great list of festivals here

Any advice for budding choreographers/cinematographers?

Just do it.  

Biography: Her live work and video art has shown at Jacob's Pillow, PS 21, Peak Performances, the Joyce Soho, and she's engaged in tech residencies at the Krannert, Clarice Smith Art Center, Danspace in NYC, Dance Place, DC and numerous times at REDCAT including the NOW Festival & RADAR LA. Her film work has screened at the Laemmle Sunset 7, Mann Chinese Theater, and the United Nations General Assembly, and 160+ festivals internationally including Cannes, Austin, Seattle, Dance Camera West and DFA garnering numerous awards. She served as the Director for the 2015 Topanga Film Festival, has curated dance for camera for Dance Camera West and Topanga Film Festival for a total of 10 years, has taught Dance for Camera at UCLA, St. Mary's College, ASWARA and University of Malaysia and Indonesia Institute of the Arts. She was the recipient of the Surdna Arts Teachers Fellowship, the Chime's Choreographer Mentorship Exchange and was a mentor for the ODC Pilot Program's first ever multi-media residency.  She is currently developing video artistry for Kevin Williamson, David Rousseve, Lionel Popkin, and for Emily Beattie. She's currently shooting a feature film for Marta Renzi and curated DFA's Dance Film Lab end of the year holiday program.  She is over the moon delighted to be teaching for NYU TISCH Dance Department’s Dance & New Media program and directing a Virtual Reality project collaboration between Google, ITP and Opera on Tap. 

Avoiding Questions While I Make a Dance

I'll start with an admission: It's been awhile since I made a dance. It's been almost exactly two years in fact, since I went in the studio and made something from scratch. In that time I've made quite a few student pieces, some of which I like a lot, but we all know that's a very different process. When you have a time limit, a music genre, a limited vocabulary, and a large group of young dancers to work with, you just do the work of putting everything together. You try your best to make the young dancers look good. What you don't do is grapple with the question "Why?" Why am I making a solo rather than a duet, why am I asking for music inspired by the landscape of Arizona, what is my dancer dancing about???

I'm hoping that once I get into the studio, I can turn these why questions into how questions, like "How will the dancer enter the stage, how will she relate to the music and to the musicians, how will she get from phrase A to phrase B." I know that productive "how" questions can easily slide back to second-guessing "why" questions. I also know that when I'm the dancer, the most productive rehearsals happen when the choreographer doesn't question why she's making the decisions she is, but just goes with them and sees where they take her.

So far, I've let the questions sit off to the side while I focused on the easy first steps, the logistics of making a piece - I found collaborators in two awesome musicians and one strong, smart dancer; we nailed down a rehearsal schedule, and have performance dates to work towards. (Thanks, NACHMO for the dates. That helps.) And we have our first rehearsal tomorrow....

NACHMO: High School Edition

This year, intermediate and advanced dance students at Grace Church School in NYC will participate in NACHMO as fledgling dancemakers! High School Dance Director, Jennifer Pommiss has designed a semester-long curriculum, which incorporates lessons in the building blocks of composition along with NACHMO daily tasks and inspirations. Students will not only begin to use Dance as a powerful and viable means of expression and communication, they will also come to understand the importance of cultivating a regular creative practice. High school choreographers will hope to interact with and learn from the NACHMO community, as well as share their explorations, discoveries and final dances. 

Assignment for the week of 11/2

What if you had to introduce yourself to someone in movement with no (or minimal) dialogue? Well, guess what? You do!

You can approach this in many different ways, but here are some possibilities:

You could use your chronology as a starting point, going from birth to your current age while highlighting different events. Make sure you do not act things out or mime them

You could also think about it a bit more abstractly from the get go....what makes you YOU? Make a list of qualities. How would you  express those qualities in movement. 

These are just a couple of suggestions. You may come up with other strategies. You can use as many different tracks of music as you want in your choreographic process; however, you should plan to perform your piece for the class in silence.

Tara E., Grade 12: I approached this assignment by starting out with how I developed as a dancer, beginning from the first time I walked into the studio. I started with basic Dance 1 class exercises , when I was just learning technique, and then moved on to extensions, and so forth. This assignment was challenging because I didn't want it to seem like I was just stealing all of Ms.Pommiss's exercises. It was easy to have her exercises as a starting point and have the opportunity to introduce myself without limits. I don't really like performing without music, mainly because you have to make up your own rhythm instead of basing it off of the music. It's pretty challenging.

Millie N., Grade 10:Introducing myself with movement was much harder than I anticipated. I assumed that it would come naturally to me because I am constantly expressing myself through movement every time I dance. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to essentially choreograph a dance that represented what I represent as a person. When I took into consideration what the assignment actually was, I realized that this went beyond expressing myself, and I had to take that concept literally. I approached this assignment in different ways, in that through my choreography, I go back and forth between describing my traits and characteristics with dance, and describing different important moments in my life through dance. I felt as though this would keep the dance more interesting and give it more depth. I choreographed the dance in silence so that the movements were a reflection on my life, rather than a reflection of the music.

Gemma G., Grade 11: I approached the dance by thinking of prime qualities that I have as well as aspects of my life that make me the person that I am. For example, I am very energetic, talkative, and moody which were things I wanted to express through movement. Aspects of my life, such as: I live in NYC, I practice Gymnastics, I go to high school, and I have divorced parents are all things that I would tell someone if I were introducing myself to them. I then decided that the most effective and clear way to portray this would be with not only dance, but also words. I cut out ten pieces of paper and wrote the attribute, or quality that I identify with on each one. I incorporated each piece of paper by moving with it. I then proceeded to the next piece of paper.

Clare T., Grade 11: Without music, certain movements look awkward, but some movements are more powerful and mean more when there is quiet. Trying to make the rhythm fit the silence is hard because you have to create your own beat, but it makes the dance more interesting to the viewers.

Oneysha B., Grade 12: When I heard about this assignment, I knew it would be challenging. Not because it would be hard for me to introduce myself through dance, but because it would be hard for me to dance without music. In much of the dance I do, music plays a large and crucial role. Introducing myself through dance would be difficult enough, and doing so without music would be nearly impossible. That being said, I got started. I turned on a song I’d always wanted to choreograph to, and I began moving. I tried to think about the pinnacle moments in my life. The moments that define me as a person, and the moments that, if left out, would leave me incomplete.