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Flash Review 1, 2-26: Talking Small, Moving Large
Banal Drama, Sublime Dance from Gordon & Co.

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- The Pick Up Performance Company's "Private Lives of Dancers 2003," seen last week at the Joyce Theater, opened a trifle ominously, with tape recordings of dancers telling how they first got into dance. Any production based on the premise that the private lives of the participants are going to be of signal interest to the audience is based on a shaky presumption, and indeed the "fictionalized rehearsal dialogue" David Gordon concocted for this post-modern dance-drama has moments of supreme banality -- I can't tell if he's pulling my leg, showing me real life, or has some kind of Zen even-mindedness that finds interest in not merely anything, but everything. (Dinner, digestion, reproduction, and so forth.)

Underlying the superficial through-line of the piece -- the breaking news of the possible pregnancy of a dancer, and the subsequent game of "telephone" that transpires as this "information" passes from person to person -- is a larger subject: marriage, or, at any rate, partnership. The emblematic union here is, as ever with this group, the union of the shambling, sloppy, American Gordon and his cool, refined, British wife, Valda Setterfield. They open the action by setting up the alluring, minimal decor -- a series of door frames they hinge together into a screen that runs across the back of the stage -- talking all the while. Setterfield natters on about this and that -- what she is about to do (exercise), what she will do after (have breakfast), and the like -- and asking Gordon an endless stream of questions (should she make him coffee, shop for dinner, etc., etc.). He answers monosyllabically, query after query so that, after a lot of "no's" and "yes's," an "okay" sounds positively encyclopedic.

There's an underlying familiarity to this dialogue, not in the content but in the rhythm, and after a few minutes the "music" of the exchange makes itself clear. David and Valda sound just like Vladimir and Estragon, the ever-couple in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Had they just gone on forever, talking and putting up the set, I might have been happy forever, just listening. It's a sparse song, but a deep one.

Then things got shallower, what with the dancers entering and the talking starting, and the piece rapidly acquired a faux documentary aspect. (It reminded me just of little of Truffaut's movie "Day for Night," which also has layers of "reality," albeit more charming ones.) To keep us clued into the real topic -- marriage-- excerpts from actual conversations are played. These are identified in the program. First is an interview with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, which is real; next is the "dressing room quarrel" from "Red Peppers," which features Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward as a show biz couple -- very grand on stage and very common back stage -- who are not real. Merce Cunningham chatting with Bob Rauschenberg follows (note: Valda danced with Merce; hearing Merce laugh is always a treat, in-joke or not); Toni Lander and Bruce Marks, and more. There were any number of ways to relate and correlate these couples to Gordon and Setterfield, some of them rather naughty. As icing on the audiotape, the actual Deborah Jowitt was in the audience, and the virtual Deborah Jowitt was part of the soundscore, interviewing Eiko and Koma for the Oral History Project of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Is that layered enough for you?

Meanwhile, there was dancing, some of it rather lovely. And then dancing and talking, and more talking. The ensemble, at this moment in time, seems to me ill-assorted, however individually appealing. Tadej Brdnik, Tricia Brouk, Scott Cunningham, Maria de Lourdes Davila, and Karen Graham are mismatched -- not that, in David Gordon's world, there's anything wrong with that. In fact, in David Gordon's world, it seems uncool to mention that at all. If he doesn't care that one dancer is clearly out of shape, another a technocrat more elegant than the others, and so forth, why should we? (It's the post-modern way.) But somehow, from their midst, the "rehearsed dance" takes shape, even in the talking. At the end, they change into costume and run it, and there is a beautiful, touching moment.

All dressed in silver, like a latter day version of an Arthur Wrackham fairy tale illustration, the white-haired Valda Setterfield tiptoes, teetering back and forth, all delicacy, all control, all elegance. (There's some Lucinda Childs-looking movement in this part of the piece, with the obsessional quality missing.) From behind the screen, drenched in light that makes you cry (by Jennifer Tipton), Gordon peers out at her, all yearning. When they were talking, she was seeking him. When she's dancing, he's seeking her, and she's unattainable.

While Setterfield is always a part of the dance, even when at the back, or on the edge, Gordon is never a part of it, huffing and puffing around and around like a big, bad, grey-haired, grey-moustached wolf. He's desperate, and he can't break in -- and yet, this is a dance he made. Merce Cunningham made a similar (though the means were completely different, and far more elegant) portrait of himself once in a dance called "Quartet," where there were five dancers. He himself was the odd man out, just as Gordon is here.

When he partners his wife, the tension shifts, but it doesn't ease. Is she pursuing him, or he, her? This is the kind of thing I wouldn't mind thinking about all night, but the plot -- relentlessly, ploddingly -- intrudes. Maybe it was the couples thing, but I found myself thinking about something my own husband tells me, fairly often, when we are in the country, looking at the woods. He sees trees. I see the hideous house that lies just beyond. "You have to 'faire abstraction,'" he says. So I tried to ignore the play, which I found reductive and banal, and appreciate the dance, which I found ample, and suggestive. With talking, David Gordon makes his subject -- the every day -- small. With movement, he makes it large.

Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.

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