In 2014 I collaborated with Alex Ketley on an exciting project called Deep South, where we drove through the American south, met with strangers, interviewed them about dance and performance and, in some cases, performed for them. This special project was supported by the Maggie Allessee National Center for Choreography and the Princess Grace Foundation. The following was the final report I wrote for MANCC. To go to the Experiments page on the project click here.

Alex Ketley and I met at MANCC’s five-year celebration and in that encounter discovered that we had a unique rapport. We talked about our lives in dance, our experiences as directors, and our interest in making art that is meaningful. I held on to that brief exchange and from then kept hoping for a way to work together. When he approached me with the idea for this project, I had a rare moment of unwavering, immediate interest and said yes right away. The idea of driving around in the rural south and meeting strangers and talking to them and possibly performing for them struck me as terrifying and thrilling, which in and of itself was cause for introspection. Why was I so daunted but intrigued by this opportunity?

I am lucky enough to make a living from teaching, creating and presenting my work. But it is my nature to be skeptical and critical of the institutional models that I work with. Living as a queer, Latin-American artist son of immigrants has always led me to see the ways in which structures leave certain people out of the equation of access. If you present your work in an urban contemporary art setting, you are in essence disallowing enormous swaths of the population from seeing your work, because it is only a particular person who: lives in proximity to that venue, is aware of its programming, has the interest and education to “appreciate” that work, has the economic wherewithal to gain access to the work. So much lip service is paid to the idea of “audience development,” and yet it seems obvious that if you want people outside of the regular audience to see what you are doing, you have to bring it to them, rather than wait for them to come to you.

This was my real entry point into this project – my curiosity (and fear) about what it would mean to bring what I do to a population who might not normally interact with this kind of work.

We met in Austin, Texas and had three weeks together to make it to Roanoke, Virginia, where I would be teaching in the MFA Dance program at Hollins University. Our first week was just the two of us and the following two weeks we were joined by my long time collaborator Michelle Boulé and by Sarah Woods who was worked with Alex for the past few years.

We cut a path through East Texas, Southern Louisiana and Alabama, diagonally across Mississippi, Georgia to Atlanta (where we picked up Sarah), right back west to Birmingham (where we picked up Michelle) and north into Tennessee, east through the Smokies into North Carolina, down to the northern edge of South Carolina, back up into North Carolina and ultimately, Virginia. It was a lot of driving, a lot of gazing out of a rental car window into the stunning, lush greenery of farms, forests, mountains, rivers. Each state offered topographical variations – East Texas had its austerity, Louisiana had its omnipresent moss covered cypresses, Tennessee felt like a fantastical dream once you hit the windy roads of in the mountains.

The thing that impressed me right from the start was that as soon as we started talking to people, the conversations immediately placed us at the intersection of race, class, labor, economics, home, religion, context and history. It is simply impossible to meet people in the south without getting into a conversation about how their job is going, how they feel about their family, the area, how the races in the area do or don’t mix, whether they’re gonna make it financially. While this could be true of any place in the United States, it seemed like the fraught history of north/south relations, the gaping wound of slavery’s legacy and the U.S. Civil War (in terms of economic disparity, racism, territoriality), the fact that so many of the major sites of civil rights struggles are in the south, the omnipresent Christian religiosity, all of it collaborated to create a very specific context for understanding the conditions that framed people’s lives. Most of the people we met were at the ready to really TALK. Despite the fact that most of the stereotypes that we might have had about “southerners” were countered along the way by very different, much more complex realities, the stereotype of the southern “raconteur” did prove to be solidly grounded!

In most everyday settings, there is an unspoken understanding that interactions can only take a certain amount of time, a temporality defined by the constraints of friendliness. Even when I run into friends in New York, there is a prescription to the amount of time that it takes to exchange a couple of quick facts about each other’s lives before moving on. This project invited us into a different experience of time, a practice of instigating conversations and then lingering in them, going beyond what might normally be considered the “end” of the conversation. I found this approach to time fascinating and rich with possibility for interpreting the nuances of the social choreography that was happening when our strangeness (two or four northern city folk traveling through the south in a nice rental car) encountered their “strangeness,” by which I just mean that if it weren’t for this project, we probably never would have had occasion to meet each other. By asking a question about someone else’s life and then really sitting back and letting the time fill with space and waiting, more often than not people offered intimate stories about themselves.

As I mentioned, labor was usually the meeting ground for a discussion. How people’s work life is or isn’t going was what a lot of people wanted to talk about first. From there getting into a conversation about art, or even more specifically, dance, was tricky. A lot of times it seemed superfluous, or irrelevant to try to steer the conversation there. After a few days Alex had the clever idea of telling people that we were doing a “film project,” because it was a lot easier to explain what the hell we were doing walking around with a video camera if we introduced our project that way than to tell them that we were choreographers. Contemporary dance and performance are definitely not on most folks’ radar of possible experience. For my part I was really happy that I’d had the last minute idea before I left New York to bring my small battery powered amp and microphone/guitar pedal situation, which I’m so fond of using. A lot of times I found that it made more sense to create sound or songs, as a way of entering into a performance since at least music is something that most people have a relationship to.

There are too many stories to name in this short report but one of my favorite experiences was when Alex and I, during the first week of the project, ended up stopping in Uniontown, Alabama. We parked our car and when we got out saw that we were right in front of a barbershop, and Alex, reminding me that I had been talking about wanting to get my hair cut, suggested that we go in. When we did, everyone inside turned to us and we immediately realized that we were not the usual customers – it was a black barbershop – but we decided to wait it out to see what might happen. After waiting a while I got in the barber’s chair and he began cutting my hair in silence. Alex went outside to the porch. I kept wondering if we were an invasive presence – this would be a question that I’d wonder about many times throughout the project. While I knew that part of the point of what we were doing was to go beyond the confines of our regular environment, I didn’t want to come across as anthropological scientists studying the ways of “others.” I sat in the chair for a long time before I broke the silence with a simple question: Is this your shop? That led us into a long conversation where the barber told me that he’d had it for over a year, that we were in the “black belt,” the poorest part of Alabama. He said that the town had a bad reputation because of a drug raid in the 90’s. He then said, “You’re the first white client I’ve ever had.” I told him, “I’m Latin-American so I don’t really know what color that makes me.” He said, “Ok, let’s take race out of it, you’re the first straight haired client I’ve ever had. I’m glad you didn’t ask me to cut the top because I was going to have to tell you that I don’t know how to do that.” He said that he’d taught himself how to cut hair from videos he watched on YouTube. According to a new Alabama law, he’d have to get a license but the cheapest course to do so costs $12,000. The next course costs $28,000. There’s no way he would be able to do that. After the haircut he showed me a picture of his daughter that he took, because he is also an amateur photographer. I went out on the porch and Alex was talking to the two women who had been in the shop when we came in, Val and Carol. Val was especially chatty. Apparently when Alex had stepped out she’d asked him “Are you buying gold?” and he asked her to repeat the question before he said, “No.” From there they launched into a long conversation where she told him that there was no work here. People carpool 70 miles north to work in the Mercedes plant. She used to work as a security guard at a prison in town that was a holding center for people who were going to be deported. She said it was cool because she met people from everywhere. Carol mostly just nodded and laughed in assent from time to time. We talked about incarceration rates and poverty and she talked about how it’s important for people not to have poverty of the mind, to not let their conditions keep them down. Meanwhile guys from the neighborhood were coming to the shop. This one guy, seeing Alex’s video camera, said “Hey I wanna be an actor, can I be in your movie?” We got Val to talk about line dancing when she was a middle schooler. She did it with her school right in the main intersection of the town during a parade. She smiled telling us about it. She has five kids. She was really proud because the oldest three got through high school without getting pregnant, and definitely from meeting the people along the way, this is a pretty significant feat.

I offered to perform for them. I got my amp and pedal from the car and did a song I’d been working on. Carol laughed the whole time. Some guys left but some were drawn to the shop. Val said afterwards, “So that’s what you do?” I said, “Yeah it’s part of what I do.” “That’s cool,” Val said. An older portly gentleman walked up. “What’s going on here? Sounds like Indian music!” One of the younger guys said oh you should try to get him to sing. This is the reverend. The reverend had a fancy gold watch on with some diamonds encrusted into the clockface. We decide to take off and I noticed that as we did more guys were gravitating to the barbershop, maybe because of the song? Who knows. We were there for two and a half hours. As we left I commented to Alex how the whole afternoon had felt like an exercise in a new temporality that allowed for a completely different structural experience of interaction. We had started slow, agenda-less, and allowed each moment to unfold according to its own timing. It was special and extraordinary and I still keep thinking about it. Fifteen minutes to the North in our car and it was all posh houses and white people.

Many of the people we met seemed “stuck,” trapped in their lives or in their towns due to the lack of good-paying jobs, access to education or opportunities, and also at times the pervasive sense that things were as they were and they weren’t going to change. In many places, it seemed pretty obvious that there simply isn’t much to do. Lauren, a hotel receptionist in Sylacauga, Alabama, put it this way, “The two things to do here are get pregnant or do drugs.” In performing for people I felt like we were cracking open the routine of their lives and sprinkling in a little bit of magical, indefinable experience. This could have been a dicey operation – we are privileged by the fact that our lives are mobile, both literally and figuratively. I mean, we were in a rental car that we would pop back into and drive away in. That privilege and the differences between the people we met and ourselves would have been tested further if we had really stayed in a town for longer than a day or two. But I think that the project worked because we offered our performances with sincerity and simplicity, free of charge and in “exchange” for the fruitful conversations. I kept wondering what people’s lives might look like if they could have more exposure or access to art or to cultivating their own creativity, which obviously abounds right below the surface. People are naturally curious. They WANT novelty. If framed gently, without a lot of pretense, set up or assumption, yes you can perform abstract contemporary improvisational dance or music in front of someone who has no immediate reference for it. Granted, our performances were brief (one to five minutes usually), and not terribly complicated in terms of “content.” But as the trip ended I realized I wanted this practice that we had developed to continue.

America is a confusing, beautiful, doomed place. Over the course of the trip we fatigued of the endless strip malls and churches and gun support signs. Our healthy, organic food loving diets were severely challenged by the plethora of Waffle Houses, Taco Bells, Pizza Huts, Burger Kings. Seriously, food politics could easily in and of itself become a separate research project to delve into, because it was impossible not to consider the relationship between the crappy food options and the general population’s health or well being. I was highly sensitive to being the queer in the group and to the ways I was turning down my sexual/gender identity to be a non-threatening presence (and also for self-protection). This became exhausting very quickly, and I couldn’t help but think about my many queer friends who are from the south and the lives and families that they escaped in search of more hospitable communities in urban settings.

I loved spending this kind of time with Alex. He is an incredible person and artist. He asks a question and truly waits for the answer, holds on to the thread of conversation and lets it find its natural tangents. Aside from the conceptual framework of the project, the primary intrigue for me in this experience was getting to spend time with him. There was a metaphor of course in the fact that we were essentially strangers to each other, with very different upbringings and histories in dance, and operating in quite different geographical and aesthetic “scenes,” which are boundaries that too often keep artists apart from each other in this country. Being alongside his steadiness, his curiosity, and his experience created a haven of safety and interest that really allowed the project to function. For all of my interest in pluralism and democracy and access, I never would have had the wherewithal to do this kind of project and to have it play out so smoothly if Alex hadn’t laid the conceptual groundwork and asked me to join. His delicate and inviting manner allowed me to access those aspects in myself and I was thrilled to find that I could find a tone of courage that was less bombastic than the one I trend towards in my typical performance work. I loved most that we were approaching an idea of public performance that wasn’t rooted in the still-safe, still-distant construct of “site-specific” work. These were “situation specific” performances, completely dependent on a discursive and discrete interaction with persons we had never met and who had never met us. It gave me hope for our form and for what we do.