“The Story Behind the Story: Mannequin and The Matter,” a discussion at Barnard between postmodern choreographer David Gordon and his wife and muse, dancer Valda Setterfield, was supposed to be a in-depth look at Gordon’s latest work in the context of some of his earlier pieces. Instead, it was a narrative of the pair’s life together in the world of dance, which kept the audience laughing and smiling for an hour and a half.
The event, which took place on Monday, Oct. 8, was moderated by Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron.
Gordon and Setterfield’s relationship has been a lifetime of merging art forms and collaborating with each other. “She’s serious, I make jokes. We’ve stayed married 51 years,” Gordon said. Rebutted Setterfield, “I just have a different sense of humor.”
Setterfield, who grew up in England, came over to the United States because she had heard that American choreographers were more accepting of tall dancers. At first she struggled, explaining to the audience that she was “deeply involved in intense internal dramas,” but eventually stumbled upon Jimmy Waring, the choreographer who was to introduce her to a freer style of dancing and her future husband.
Meanwhile, Gordon never intended to be a dancer. “I met Jimmy because I had run away from home, from New York City to New York City,” he told the audience. Waring spotted Gordon in Washington Square Park, and “I happened to be six feet tall and I could stand on one leg—so I was a dancer.”
Waring brought both of them into the New York world of art, film, galleries, and dance. “Jimmy gave one a life to live,” Setterfield said. A few years later, the two were married.
Gordon explained how one of his earliest works, “Mannequin Dance,” came to be. He had an outbreak of pubic lice at the time and had to apply medication for it. “So I stood naked in the bathtub, and the only thing I could do was to rotate and lie down. And that became Mannequin.” The idea for the title came from Gordon’s day job, where he dressed mannequins for the window of a clothing store. He said he found it fascinating how mannequins “changed personalities” depending on the clothing they were wearing.
“The Matter,” Gordon’s second featured piece of the evening, has a similarly interesting story of conception. Fascinated with the stop-action sequence photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, Gordon cut up the photographs into their individual poses and mailed them to his wife, who was on tour at the time with Merce Cunningham. “Valda seriously learned every single bloody pose,” marveled Gordon, and Setterfield’s performing the poses in succession became a dance called “The Photographer” that was part of The Matter.
The audience was able to watch a recording of Setterfield dancing the piece. Setterfield’s grace and elegance were mesmerizing despite the disjointed, banal movements—as Perron put it afterward, the piece was a demonstration of “the pedestrian versus the virtuosic.”
The evening concluded with Perron asking Setterfield what it meant for her to be her husband’s muse. Setterfield replied that being a muse and a wife made for a life that was “congested in a strange way,” and reflected that she began over time to take a less passive role in the creation of dance. “In the beginning, I thought it was my mission to serve the artist. After having friends affected by the AIDS epidemic, I learned that one’s job was to take care of oneself first so that you could offer everything you could to others.”
In the end though, it really comes down to dance.
Gordon added, “The thing that doesn’t change is that Valda is the most astonishing performer. She is in every moment that she is on the stage.”
From Oct. 22-28, the Danspace Project will present “The Matter” with Setterfield and students from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.