Philly dancers trip the light fantastic with David Gordon

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Filmmaker David Gordon, a founding member of the legendary 60s dance collective at the Judson Church, established his own successful itinerant company for several years before leaving dance to become a filmmaker. He returns to the dance stage, virtually, for the 2020 Fringe Festival with a film remembrance of his dance past, and how choreography connects to a new generation of dancers at a most challenging time.

Gordon worked 30 Philadelphia dancers for the festival docu-dance film, and online performance happening titled The Philadelphia Matter- 1972/2020. Also collaborating is master videographer, Jorge Cousineau, juxtaposed to Gordon’s own style of raw, mixed-media montages that punctuate the virtual and archival film narrative.

Originally planned over a year ago for FringeArts with both New York and Philly dancers, Gordon re-conceived it as a virtual film, but still with his usual sensibility of arch humor and poignancy.  

Gordon opens the film as a honky-tonk version of ‘In The Mood’ plays and narrates his beginnings as a journeyman choreographer/dancer seeking funding for his aptly named company, Pick Up Performance Co., Inc.

He admits, this many years later “working with rooms full of Philadelphia strangers on my computer, is a different story, but still a kind of pick up company.”

From there, the lilting British voice of Valda Setterfield, takes over the narration about Gordon’s dance aesthetic, knowing the full inside story as his artistic partner, onstage and off in their 60 years of marriage.

A few overreaching narratives tie in Gordon’s dance diary, but mostly this is a spirited hour of visiting in on dancers’ lives. And the 30 dancers in Philadelphia are certainly in the mood to bust out of isolation. They are dancing together some of Gordon’s steps in a beautiful field (guessing it’s Fairmount Part), brought joyously together via Cousineau’s film wizardry.

There is a wonderful segment of archival footage of a Gordon ensemble dance piece with Philly dancers superimposed reading some sweaty passages from critics about his choreography at the time.

Gordon’s original cast of dancers performed a segment of his choreography with no musical score. Gordon then shows the dance again, revealing that the steps for the choreography were created for singer Little Eva’s 60s dance-pop hit ‘Do the Locomotion.’

In her own right, Setterfield was in the Merce Cunningham Company for ten years. Her career came to a near-tragic halt when as a passenger in a car en-route to Washington, a commuter train slammed into them. She crashed through the windshield suffering multiple injuries, including memory loss.

Gordon had devised a rehab choreography for her that eventually became ‘Chair’, a pas de deux of geometric friezes, dive downs, and daily regimen. It was “a radical new way to move our 40-year-old bodies” that would also tap into her ballet and modern technique. Valda describes his choreographic instructions as one of her repeatedly mounting and falling around the chair on a pile of coats, so she wouldn’t bruise, and day after day removing one of the coats.

At some point, Valda starts singing Stars and Stripes Forever (incongruously) to “dancing with whatever we’re doing with those bloody chairs.” Setterfield performed the piece at Paula Cooper Gallery in Soho just 5 months after her accident.

Fast-forward to intercuts of the dancers in Philadelphia doing ‘Chair’ in their own locked-down existence in their apartments. They also appear outside in the rain in locales around Philadelphia, from the jetty of Pier 9 on Delaware to a rooftop across from UArts’ building, and a finale sequence on the street symbolically scored to the ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ anthem.

The black and white film stock of 50 years ago combined with fade-ins of digitized insets of the ensemble in Philadelphia recreated his choreographies, steps that flow into a primal eloquence or rote editorial. Perhaps now, more apropos than ever, as everyone tries to navigate the fog of uncertainty, artistic or otherwise.

There is a stirring segment that unfolds as Gordon essays his disdain for revivals of old work. “Beware of falling in love with what you make.”  And Valda concurs in her voiceover, “reproduction and repertory are not his favorite words”.

Yet, they returned to ‘Close Up’, a piece they made in the early 70s that became a signature work performed by other companies, which now offers unexpected relevance. 

There is haunting archival footage of ‘The Philadelphia Matter’ of Valda and David, both older, marking the steps on a public stage at the Twin Towers in New York on 9/10/2001 when a sudden rainstorm prompted the stage manager to halt the rehearsal. Valda and David awoke the next day and looked out their window and saw everyone running, as they realized that the world had changed forever in a flash.

‘Close Up’ was danced in silence, but in its current revival, Gordon added music – a solo piano transcription of Gustav Mahler’s 4th (profound Adagietto).

‘Close-Up’ 2020 is revisited by the Philly dancers through virtual windows in their private spaces as well as some outdoors. The film panels scroll over each other, fading in and out- a transcendent statement in dance, again in this time of shared grief and artistic purpose.

The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020
September 10-October 4
part of the 2020 Fringe Festival
60 minutes on Vimeo
https://fringearts.com/event/the-philadelphia-matter-1972-2020/

Philadelphia Virtual Company: Mehgan Abdel-Moneim, Megan Bridge, Marie Brown, Sanchel Brown, Eun Jung Choi, Amalia Colón-Nava, Sydney Donovan, Bethany Formica, Beau Hancock, Nile Harris, Justin Jain, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Jungeun Kim, Megan Mazarick, Lucas Mikan, Rhonda Moore, Guillermo Ortega, Rebecca Patek, Dawn Pratson, Lauren Putty White, Gabrielle Revlock, Nick Schwasman, Margot Electra Steinberg, Katie Vickers, November Ward, and Jacinta Lee Yelland.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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