A conversation with Garrett Ammon and Alex Ketley

Ballet Nouveau Colorado's innovative season draws to a close this weekend with a program of four brand-spankin'-new pieces, one by BNC artistic director Garrett Ammon, one by company artist Jason Franklin, and one each by guest choreographers Maurya Kerr and Alex Ketley. We caught up with Ammon and Ketley to discuss the show -- titled Rarities & Oddities -- which opens tonight and plays through Sunday.

First, our conversation with Alex Ketley, whose segment of the show involves -- yes, really -- dancing panda bears.

WW: How did the idea for this show first take hold in your consciousness?

AK: I think the genesis of it, for the most part, was just so much of my work and kind of looking out at the dance landscape. I think it's really fantastic that there's so much really serious work, but I kind of wanted to work on a project where I just was as ridiculous as possible, and I felt like panda costumes were kind of a good avenue for that, and so I was knocking that around. But it's been an interesting project, because ridiculous only goes so far. The challenge of the project has been threading this euphoric, fun aspect of the work with more rigor and finding the balance between those two things. Because I think having a bunch of people jumping around in panda outfits is kind of a one-liner, it doesn't particularly fascinate me in any way. I've worked with generating different emotional states within the performers, which kind of translates outward to the audience.

I was just in Ballet Liepzig in Germany and was doing this very intense work, and swinging that pendulum all the way to the other side coming here, really wondering about happiness and euphoria -- and just as an artist, it really taps into a different part of your creative self, the same way it does as a person. You can think very seriously and in-depth about something, but sometimes creativity is about letting go of something and having this very strange and fun template. I thought it was really smart that Garrett and Dawn (Fay) kind of framed the show for an audience, saying, "This is the weird aspect of what choreographers would think about," because if it weren't framed like that, the audience would think, "This is a lot of really strange work." But giving choreographers the opportunity to say, "This is a really strange idea, I want to knock around with it," and giving audiences an entryway into that is important. And I've seen all four pieces now, and they're -- I think they're strange, but everybody was really deeply invested in the work, and I would say also that it's not avant-garde strange, it's just -- they're these sort of odd temperaments for a performance.

WW: From the descriptions, it seems like these works are more playful than the typical ballet fare.

AK: Definitely, my work is more playful. We have David Attenborough talking, and heavy metal -- it's quite the strange juxtaposition of things. I can so easily in the process slip into much more rigorous mindsets, and I'm really trying to avoid ... yesterday in rehearsal I was really drawn into, "How does this make sense and how does this all work?" and I'm trying to help my more childlike mind stay on top, because sometimes fantastic choices come out of that. And I'm trying to do different things for me, because sometimes you look at the same thing in the same way and you get locked into a pattern, and I figured with this program, it gave me an opportunity to say, "What happens if I do this step or that step?" It's been a lot of fun.

WW: How did you go about choosing music for pandas to dance to?

AK: I was selecting the music that felt most fun to me to dance to. But for music, I really spend a lot of time listening to whatever music I pick, and then I also do a fair amount of manipulating and editing myself of the music that I've chosen. So I think the process has been fairly accumulative. I'm building dances and looking at those dances with different types of music and thinking about the span across the piece -- how do we move throughout the piece? -- but it's pretty light and fun.

Garrett Ammon, BNC's artistic director, was charged with pulling Ketley's production -- and the other three -- together into a cohesive whole. Keep reading to learn how he did it.

WW: Where did the idea of the dancing pandas come from?

Garrett Ammon: The idea for the production came out of a conversation with Alex. We've had Alex in three times in the past to create work for the company, and we love having him here and love his artistic voice. He brought up in passing this idea he's been carrying around for a really long time of having the dancers dressed like pandas. He said it half-jokingly but also in a very serious way as well, and then he went on to say how he'd brought up the idea to several artistic directors in the past, but no one ever took him up on it -- they laughed it off. And I said, "You've been carrying around this idea for two or three years; you should be have the opportunity to create this work that has continued to needle at you." And that's where the idea of the production came out of.

Giving choreographers the opportunity to create those works that might not have ever had the opportunity to exist because maybe it seems a little too odd or outside what a dance company is looking for, but I really believe that our audience has really come to not only embrace but really love the innovative work that we're doing, so what it's created is this buzz about, oh my gosh, what are we going to do? Because they're always so excited about the new ideas and collaborations we do, it's really created an exciting energy for not only the choreographers, but also the dancers, and our audience who just loves to see what we're going to do next.

WW: Can you describe the program for us?

GA: That piece, Alex's new work, which he's here creating right now, is one ballet out of four on the program -- it's what we call a mixed bill. So it's four world-premiere ballets, so the panda ballet is one of those four. The evolution of what those pandas look like has gone through many iterations in his mind as he's been developing the idea for the piece, it's been a process of meeting with Catherine Strecker, our costume designer, and talking about different possibilities and options. So what those pandas are going to look like -- it was a journey in itself to kind of say, okay, are we going to be literal pandas, or are we going to be silly pandas? And so they've settled on a nice combination where they're still dressed like human beings, but they have elements of panda-ness to them with masks and so forth. And I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

One of the other works is by a dancer in the company -- we really love our company dancers that are interested in choreography, having the opportunity to develop that skill and that aspect of the art form. So Jason Franklin has created a wonderful, very unusual kind of journey-through-the-looking-glass kind of experience, where people evolve and morph into different characters than they started off. It opens with an entire section of dialogue that starts off pretty normal, and as it moves through the work, gets more and more unusual and strange. It's ended up being a lot of fun.

And then Maurya Kerr is another San Francisco-based choreographer that Alex introduced us to, she's been choreographing for two years. She was a principal dancer with Lines Ballet, and she's really interested in the exploration of the written word merged with dance, and the idea of vocabulary and alphabets and so forth, and how those come together with movement, so she created an entire vocabulary that was inspired off of not only creating an alphabet of movement, but also using poetry to be the inspiration for each movement, each gesture in the work. And the dancers also vocalize while they're dancing in various ways that are a lot of fun and very surprising to suddenly hear the dancers on stage burst into various sounds, whether they be human or not. It's really been a wonderful experience for her to have the freedom to take on some of those ideas and know that it was okay to do that.

And the fourth work is a new work of mine, and I am actually working with Jesse Manley; he's a local singer/songwriter who has been doing some really incredible work, and I think he's one of the most talented new singer/songwriters out there in Denver right now. He actually has his first EP being released -- his CD-release party is actually the week after our production. He's a wonderful guy, and I really have loved watching him grow as an artist. I got my hands on an un-mastered copy of his new album, and listened to it and just fell in love with it, and was immediately inspired to all kinds of visual ideas, so I came to him and said, "Hey, would you consider doing the show with us?" He was thrilled, so he's actually performing live on stage with us for my work, and it's ... the music is very haunting and very, it's definitely American folk music in where it comes from, the impetus of it comes from, but it's all original compositions.

It's the kind of music that you feel like, somehow, even the first time you've heard it, you feel like you've always known it. Somehow when I was listening to the music, these images started coming to me of this very dark environment where somehow the dancers were lighting each other with mining helmets, where the struggle of working in a mine and the parallel between that and the struggle of life, moving through life and using that as a representation of that. So the dancers are all wearing mining helmets that they use to light each other, and the environment becomes very closed in and tight around them, and how those relationships end up happening in that kind of environment.

The work relates to love and loss and wrath and redemption in the end. Very kind of base human emotions that much folk music is about. But along with these mining helmets, I really was interested in exploring other ways of telling stories and creating movement on stage, and our costume designer is actually a puppeteer by trade, so what I did is I started working with her on creating shadow puppets for the ballet, so those mining helmets are not only used to light each other, but they also become the light source to create shadow puppets. It's amazing how well it's come together. The whole work is definitely abstract in its general sense, but my work always tends to have some subtle story thread through it, and it's been really incredible to see what we can create on stage with those shadow puppets.

WW: What are some of the challenges you face as an artistic director, pulling these different ideas together into a cohesive show?

GA: It can certainly be challenging. Especially when you've given the choreographers such a broad palette to work from; they've been given permission to journey deep into their mind and explore these ideas. I think the important thing is always having that conversation with them and letting them know that we really support what they're doing, and also by programming the show this way, what we've done is prepared the audience for the fact that they really don't know what they're going to see from one moment to the next, so it gives us a lot of freedom on that level -- but you also have to think about how these different works come together.

The company is eleven dancers, so we have to talk to each choreographer about what dancers they're going to use and make sure that's very balanced, make sure that everybody is being used throughout the show in a balanced way and so forth. I would say that a lot of those things in this context are very logistical. And also those technical things of, when a choreographer has an idea of, "Oh, I would really love this particular thing to happen lighting-wise," or, "Can I get this particular prop?" And that's a process of sitting down and saying, what do we have both time-wise and budget-wise and so forth to make that happen, and what will that look like? Which is all kind of part of the process of creating a piece of art in general. So it's just kind of keeping that broad perspective on it.

WW: Can you talk about the choice of title for the program?

GA: I think it really came out of needing to somehow express... we wanted to express to the audience some feeling of what we were trying to do with the program, that the idea that it might be a little more unusual than what they usually see. We're always creating new work -- we're a contemporary dance company; we like to push our art form forward and try innovative things -- but I also feel like trying to choose a name where the audience is coming in, in anticipation and wonder in what it is that they're going to see, rather than trying to define it wholly, was the right choice. And from the feedback I've gotten, I really feel like we've successfully done that; people are really intrigued.

WW: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

GA: I would just say that for anybody who's seen us before, this show is a must-see, especially people who came to Carry On, the collaboration we did with Paper Bird. Jesse Manley's music runs along that same gamut and it's kind of where it generates from; anyone who loves Paper Bird would love Jesse's music, anyone who loves contemporary dance is going to love it, and anyone who hasn't seen us, this is the perfect chance to come and check out a really diverse show that's going to be packed full of dancing. And at that performance we'll be announcing our upcoming season, our tenth season, at that show, so that's going to be a lot of fun, too.

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