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Flash Review 1, 1-14: The Bard, but Better
Gordon Spins Shakespeare

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2004 Gus Solomons jr

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NEW YORK -- Playing two weekends, January 8-11 and 15-18, at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, David Gordon's new "Dancing Henry Five: a Pre-emptive (Postmodern) Strike & Spin" condenses Shakespeare's five act, four-hour epic into a concise, hour long... epic, cutting out the boring dialog and spicing up highlights with dancing.

Gordon can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and the presence of his wife and muse Valda Setterfield adds custom details. He has a flawless knack for elegant staging. And here, with a cast of seven stellar dancers (Karen Graham, Tadej Brdnik, Tricia Brouk, Todd Allen, Christopher Morgan, Daniel Smith, and Luis de Robles Tentindo), Setterfield, and the Bard as collaborators, Gordon has created a handsome handbag indeed.

Setterfield, standing atop a rolling library ladder announces with her reassuring British voice that as narrator/chorus, she will "fill in, fill up, and fill out" Shakespeare's tale and act as mouthpiece for Gordon's opinions. King Henry V's war against France is Gordon's vehicle to rail against war in general and draw parallels -- without naming names -- to the imperialism of Big Brother Bush's current administration.

The performers parade around the spacious sanctuary floor, bathed in Jennifer Tipton's luscious light, carrying signs: "Dancing," "Henry," "Five," and others, identifying themselves. They're dressed like rugby players in striped jerseys and mismatched knee socks with dark shorts and stocking caps. Later, they don elaborate ponchos made of similar shirts sewn together a-jumble that double for battle armor and, tied around waists, courtly gowns.

Snippets of dialog from the play and from writings about it, heard on tape by such theatrical luminaries as Christopher Plummer and Laurence Olivier, weave through musical passages from William Walton's "Henry V: Suite" and "The Wise Virgins." Production stage manager Ed Fitzgerald controls things from his seat on the altar. The audience sits on opposite sides of the space, facing each other and the action.

Carousing at the Boar's Head pub, the dancers play a game of catch with two red balls. The irony of the lighthearted game turns dark, when Gordon observes -- through his surrogate Setterfield -- that people who go to war always say God is on their side, and that if they win, that proves it, but wonders what the losers say.

With skill and imagination Gordon -- a veteran of the sixties' Judson Group, which rebelled against the costumes, sets, steps, and artifice of modern dance -- mines a minimal movement vocabulary and finds infinite variations in simple phrases: lunges: turned out, in, and to the side; arm gestures and simple physical shapes; pedestrian walking in intricate patterns. The simple movement always serves as metaphor for literary ideas; it never calls attention to virtuosity, although its rhythmic precision is technically rigorous.

Setterfield impersonates a dying Falstaff, while his lover, Mistress Quickly (Brouk), dances a sweet, mournful solo. Henry and his army sail for France, standing on lengths of red-striped, black fabric that get dragged across the floor. In a stately minuet Setterfield teaches English to Katherine of France (Graham), in preparation for her potential alliance with King Henry (Brdnik); with the same motif she abets their courtship.

In battle with the French, the woefully outnumbered British soldiers play a kind of musical chairs: they line up folding chairs and advance them, one by one, and run in circles; they pound their spears (wooden poles) on the ground in a brisk rhythmic tattoo, tossing dummies through the air in Tipton's mysterious, shadowy light. Setterfield opines that the British won because the French may have decimated themselves with "friendly fire."

The dancers lay a carpet, made of those ubiquitous striped fabric pieces, for the stately wedding procession of King Henry and Princess Katherine, and finally, the cast says a cheery "goodnight," and we go happily into the freezing New York night.

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