TBT: Valda Setterfield on Going “Through Hell and High Water” While Collaborating With David Gordon

February 9, 2023

“I have always thought of myself as a kind of vessel through which the work might flow,” Valda Setterfield told us in the February 1993 issue of Dance Magazine. She was working with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, and reflecting on a performance career that had already passed the three-decade mark.

After studying ballet under Marie Rambert and Audrey de Vos in England and a brief career in Italian musical revues, Setterfield followed the advice of her friend David Vaughan and used her savings to move to New York City in the 1950s. She quickly began dancing with both James Waring and Merce Cunningham. While she was a memorable performer with Cunningham’s company for many years, it was through Waring that she met her husband, David Gordon, with whose choreography she has become indelibly associated, from early works at Judson Dance Theater (“I was in the hospital giving birth to Ain during the first Judson Church performances,” she recalled) to Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Co(s).

“I can please David, and thrill him, and disappoint him more than anyone else, because he expects more from me,” she said. “He can unnerve me, make me crazy and furious. We expect more from each other, so we almost always go through hell and high water, or fire and brimstone, for a piece to arrive at performance.” Gordon’s postmodern works frequently made use of spoken text, the skill for which Setterfield has carried to and from her career as an actor in film and stage works, including a lauded turn, at age 81, as the titular character in a 2016 production of King Lear. She and Gordon, who died in January 2022, jointly received a Dance Magazine Award in 2019.