On my way to the Joyce SoHo last Wednesday, while thinking about David Gordon’s 50th anniversary — and realizing that, while he has been making work for five decades, I would be seeing it live for the first time that night — I got to wondering: What does Gordon, renowned for resisting any sort of tidy classification, think about these tidy little landmarks called anniversaries?
I could imagine him deeming them completely arbitrary, sort of like he did with the phrase “postmodern choreography”; according to a 2002 essay by the dance critic Suzanne Carbonneau, he once called these two words “stakes driven into the heart of a work.” I could picture him concluding that, like this limiting term, the notion of an anniversary satisfies only our need to label, quantify, demarcate (and market). “Fifty years since what?” I could hear him asking. Was what happened 50 years ago — in this case, Gordon’s participation in the first concert of the Judson Dance Theater, that defining rift between modernism and postmodernism in dance — really the beginning of what we’re now calling 50 years old?
In retrospect, the chatter of my invented conversation seems like a fitting overture, albeit a very personal one, to Gordon’s new work, Beginning of the End of the…, a dance-theater production that explores, in part, the ways in which characters inhabit and haunt the minds of their authors. (I’m reminded of the moment when, losing patience with the eight other members of his relentlessly talkative cast, Gordon implores: “Could you all take a walk while I think?”) For me, the director/writer/choreographer/performer had become a kind of character in the lore of 20th-century dance history, capable of carrying on elaborate soliloquies in my mind.
True to (imagined) form, Gordon avoids any momentous, milestone-marking fanfare in Beginning, which is based on three works by the Italian author (and kindred absurdist) Luigi Pirandello. What’s remarkable, as people have been saying about Gordon’s work for, well, 50 years, is just how unassuming it is: Its finely honed ordinariness, its unpredictable yet somehow inevitable interactions between movement and language and scenery and sound. And yet, Beginning also seems particularly cognizant of where it, and its maker, stand in time. Sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, Gordon is taking stock of who he is, what he has been doing all these years, and with whom—in particular, his creative and life partner, the profoundly poised Valda Setterfield, who here plays the Leading Lady and Author’s Wife. Meanwhile, he is acknowledging that, someday, it’s all going to end.
The question of whether we are seeing the “real” Gordon — who sits at a small lamp-lit desk upstage, sizing up the situation, jotting down notes — or the main character he plays, the Director/Author in Pirandello’s 1921 Six Characters in Search of an Author, persists throughout this hour-long work. Where is the line between the actual director, the acting one, and the one who wrote the source material? When several performers chime in with, “Madness and absurdity is the basis of your profession,” and later, “Deconstructing conventional theater was his obsession,” they could be referring to all three. When Gordon says of his itinerant characters, who maneuver through the space like untethered images through a restless mind, “I make the greatest effort to be satisfied with them, I do,” is he speaking as himself? When Setterfield observes that, “He is impatient with his would-be characters and impatient with me,” is this a real or fictional impatience? And does she herself accept the beliefs that her author-husband has ascribed to her?
(Gordon is perhaps most unequivocally himself — the guy who you could picture rehearsing, musing, arguing, decision-making, taking breaks in his SoHo loft — when discussing, with Setterfield, what’s for dinner, a conversation concluding in the theorem: “Leftovers are like characters; it depends what you do with them.”)
The excellent performers — Gordon and Setterfield are joined by Charlotte Cohn, Scott Cunningham, Norma Fire, Karen Graham, Aaron Mattocks, David Skeist and Gus Solomons jr.—are just as hard to pin down. While Cunningham, Graham, and Mattocks anchor the proceedings as a chorus of nonchalant dancers (though, as we’re told at the beginning, “all the characters always dance,” a promise they follow through on), Cohn, Fire, Solomons, and Skeist slip capriciously between roles from Six Characters, A Character’s Tragedy (1913), and The Man With The Flower In His Mouth (1922).
The ins and outs of the fractured narrative, or collision of narratives (which, it’s worth noting, somewhat tragically implicate two Raggedy Anne dolls) are less fascinating to me than what propels them: A kind of buoyant rhythm, arriving via exquisitely orchestrated, precisely recited words and sparing music, which keeps the action, the dancing, the rearrangements of the moveable set afloat. The work begins with the diminutive (in size, not presence) Setterfield, clad in sumptuous layers of mostly black and something leopard-print, marking a dance phrase, going gently and introspectively through the motions. Set to Puccini’s politely swelling “Three Minuets,” this delightful sequence returns again and again, performed by various groupings. Its trots and lunges and what look like variations on a football player’s warm-up become their own comforting refrain.
At the end, when Setterfield, who has heroically, and with a playful sense of ego, tried to embody many roles over the course of the evening (“the Mother, the Madam, the Stepdaughter, and myself, the Leading Lady”), discloses that “I am, in reality, a grandmother,” we think that perhaps she is letting us in on “the truth.” But surreptitiously, her closing monologue segues back into her opening one, a happily absent-minded introduction to the work, in which she calls on Gordon to feed her a line or two. Once again, it is impossible to tell where “real person” ends and “performer” begins. And, really, to pull apart these layers misses the point. Like “postmodern choreography” and “anniversaries,” each fold, in itself, doesn’t mean much. It’s the entanglement: beginnings overlapping with endings, illusions overlapping with realities. Here, we can keep conversing with the work, long after it appears to be over.
David Gordon’s 50th-anniversary performances at the Joyce Soho (155 Mercer Street, Soho, Manhattan) runs through June 30.