David Gordon—director, choreographer, actor, advisor, Judson Dance Theater experimentalist—died on January 29th at 85, in his loft home in Soho, leaving his wife and muse Valda Setterfield; his son Ain Gordon and son-in-law Wally Cardona and their daughters; his company; and a legion of admirers of very long standing across the dance firmament. The Rail revisits this studio visit and interview in which he wondered, “How soon do you want to know when the end will be the end?”
In his 50th year as a writer/director/choreographer/performer, David Gordon and his Pick Up Performance Company move into the Joyce SoHo for a month, with a Pirandello rewrite called Beginning of the End of the Beginning of. Incorporating Six Characters In Search of An Author plus an antecedent short story and a later one-act play, it calls for eight “actors & dancers” and two puppets, and engages familiar Gordonian devices: script pages, things on rolling stands, door frames, chairs, and lighting by Jennifer Tipton. With music by Puccini, who was Pirandello’s peer, oddly enough. (You probably don’t think of them that way, but it’s exactly correct.)
Watching a studio run-through in Gordon’s SoHo space, it’s impossible to tell whose life, whose art, which life, which art—Pirandello, Gordon?—and where in the studio the rehearsal turns from performance to discussion. It’s as if David Gordon had ghostwritten the Pirandello before he was born. The correspondences between them run through-lines every which way. The atmosphere of the piece, even during a work-a-day rehearsal, is poignant, and curiously both anticipatory and retrospective.
Memento mori, whisper the rocks on the shelves, the folding chairs, the angling of the sun through the windows looking out on Broadway. The characters seem to telepath this urgent message: We are made up out of ourselves, but we are not unreal. We are all too real. At the center of the cast of 10 is Gordon’s perennially beautiful wife, Valda Setterfield, a beneficent presence whose technical accomplishments are entirely submerged while fully deployed, so she just seems to be, with an astonishing there-ness.
“And who are you now?” Gordon asks, seated at a director’s desk within the play.
“I am your wife, and you are the author and director,” she replies, circling behind him to place her hands on his shoulders. As if he might really have forgotten.
“This is the last dance to which there is no ending yet,” he says. And that, at least at this point, is the end of the play.
Next it is notes time. The actors mill about, spacing themselves.
“So are we just staring into space here?” Scott Cunningham asks.
“No,” Gordon answers. “We are looking at the audience and telling them how much you love them and how happy you are to see them.”
“Find out what happens if just as Scott starts to bring that table, Aaron [Mattocks] starts to bring those chairs.”
“Valda, one question I have is about David’s exit after that aria scene—if you don’t want to solve it now, fine. There is still so much time and I don’t know what to do with it.”
“I have some thoughts about that. Keep on keeping on, please.”
Now, in a post-rehearsal conversation, Gordon muses on his muse-of-a-lifetime, and the trajectory that’s brought them here, to this place, this moment, this work. Meanwhile, Valda, her shopping tote in hand—it depicts a marvelous bunny rabbit in a tapestry-looking garden—leaves to run an errand, and then returns. While she’s gone, Gordon engages with his interviewer.
David Gordon: When I went looking for music in relation to Mr. Pirandello, I began to wonder who was composing—it turns out that he and Puccini were of an age. So the sentiment would not be too recognizable, I began to look for anything he had written that was not operatic or text-based.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): It would seem to convey the sentiment of your own subtext.
Gordon: I think the Puccini has about it unavoidable romanticism and sentiment in the melodic circumstances of the music, a built-in romance and poignancy that works for us.
Pirandello has about it simultaneously a narrative thrust and seeming abstraction—and it is the possibility of somehow simultaneously producing a narrative and being abstract that is interesting to me.
I was desperate to be an abstract artist and I couldn’t. I envied those artists of my moment who were abstract artists because it turned out that what I was, was a born storyteller, and I didn’t want to be that. It’s how I became interested in the use of language as a kind of music and the visualization of a fragmented narrative.
Rail: The Pirandello reads as if you wrote it.
Gordon: This obsession with illusion, reality, identity, family. That’s what it feels like to me when I read the Pirandello! I thought, did I write this? (Half the things I thought were postmodern inventions, half of which I thought were mine, Brecht had written.) It starts—really, you can trace me doing this kind of thing back to Chair in 1975. In every one of these things I have so-called—I would not call it adapting because that seems too classically conventional—I am rewriting. I read the whole play. I read and read before I ever start doing.
In 1975 I am married to Valda Setterfield, and I realize that when I come home I asked, “What happened?” And there is a long monologue about getting dressed. She is telling me what led to what happened… Valda doesn’t edit. Valda just says everything about everything. Valda is what causes me to listen to everything else as if it is all material. I have a wife who tells me too many things and a son [Ain Gordon] who tells me the history of everything my wife tells me.
I came from a family that never went to a museum, a concert, a theater, but went to a movie every Sunday and ordered the same food every time at a Chinese restaurant. How did I end up coming from that family? And this wife, in this world, and this son?
Rail: Do you think life has an arc and an inevitability?
Gordon: Life as it plays itself out may at some instant have an arc and an inevitability, but for the most part what the artist does is take the random events of real life circumstance and make some order out of them which re-examines them—not erasing their natural charm and power, while simultaneously taking advantage of it.
Rail: This show feels like a meditation on mortality.
Gordon: You can know the end before the end and now you can wait for the end. How soon do you want to know when the end will be the end?
I am step by step trying to figure out, Who am I now? (That’s Pirandello.) I don’t know the end of this story. I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t know how to be in control of it.
I didn’t know. I did not know. Step by step we just did what we did and what we thought of next. I only find out later—
Rail: And is that what you are still doing?
Gordon: At some points in time, I got very nervous about all of the things I could not understand. Then we moved here.
Rail: And you learned—
Gordon: To say yes.