Luc Delahaye, Courtesy Gordon & Setterfield

Dance Magazine Award Honorees: David Gordon & Valda Setterfield

How to frame two lifetimes of work as broad and vibrant as that of choreographer David Gordon and performer Valda Setterfield? When onstage together, an invisible tether connects them, whether they're kibitzing, chiding, flirting or embracing a sense of melancholy.


Muse and spouse to Gordon, Setterfield is a versatile, spellbinding dancer and actor, often described as coolly regal in contrast to Gordon's earthy, shaggy-haired foil. Setterfield met Gordon while dancing with James Waring in the late 1950s. From the mid-'60s to the '70s she was a distinctive presence in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and later appeared in films like Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite.

In 2016, she portrayed King Lear in John Scott's production; Brian Seibert described in The New York Times: "Setterfield is a balm. More regal than ever at 81, she can speak Shakespearean verse with mellifluous intelligence…she can invest simple pantomime with gravitas."

Gordon, who has also written and directed plays, elides dance into theater and back in his unique oeuvre for his troupe, Pick Up Performance Co(s). Some motifs recur. Autobiographical topics pop up, reinforced with the collaboration of family, including their son Ain Gordon. He has examined quotidian movements, parlaying repeating chains of simple gestures into juicy phrases.

Chairs are a staple; after Setterfield was injured in a car accident, Gordon created Chair for her in 1974 using two folding chairs. Ten years later, he created Field, Chair and Mountain—with 20 chairs—for American Ballet Theatre.

Classic texts are frameworks, notably with Dancing Henry Five (2004), which conjures Shakespeare's Henry V with rugby shirts, fabric remnants and—you guessed it—chairs. Some of Pick Up's performers have gone on to create their own mix of movement and wordplay—among them, Jane Comfort, Dean Moss and Cynthia Oliver.

Work by David Gordon Performed by David Gordon and Valda Setterfield Recorded in performance on September 30, 1978

Pick Up has recycled costumes and set elements not only as a practical and economical habit, but to proudly weave cords of its history back into its present.

Gordon's latest project is ARCHIVEOGRAPHY, a richly dense online resource inventorying his vast creative output. He has assembled "archiveography scripts" in which he intertwines his life and work, akin to cracking open his brain and peering at the process, collaborators and ephemera involved.

Gordon has noted that the voice of the choreographer is often not heard in the annals of dance, but that "my history can be lively dialogue between multiple viewpoints of past and present." Gordon has assured that his and Setterfield's shared legacy will continue on as he intended—a bold flourish of a choreographer.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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