Muse of fire

Pub date May 22, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

› a&

REVIEW Perhaps the most intriguing question about David Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Company’s Dancing Henry Five is why it works so well. Gordon took the third of William Shakespeare’s Henry plays, the monumental but stiff Henry V, sent it through the wringer of his imagination, and spit it out as what he calls in the subtitle "a pre-emptive (post modern) strike and spin." That’s about as razor-sharp and witty a label as you could stick on this elegant and prickly entertainment, which lasts for an hour but resonated well beyond the confines of the ODC Theater’s modest stage during its May 16 to 19 run.

Not that Gordon didn’t have plenty of help; for one, there is Shakespeare’s resonant language, taken from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version, which buoyed a dispirited Britain. Then there is William Walton’s mostly excellent score. And let’s not forget the Bushites, whose own strike and spin provided the impetus for this sly look at history repeated. As for Gordon’s eight-member ensemble ("plus three dummies," as Valda Setterfield, the key pin in this finely tuned work, makes a point of specifying), it is an admirably gifted and beautiful group of dancers.

Gordon is not the first to use dance and language in a fully integrated way, but few others have become as masterful at holding the two in perfect balance. In a nod to his roots in the Judson Dance Theater, his work looks casual and ordinary. The language can be everyday conversational, the dancing based on walking. But the commonplace surface is deceptive. Gordon has assembled his components with a clockmaker’s attention to using finely calibrated gears that interlock to create momentum and flow. The resulting work charms with easy grace but impresses through impeccable craft.

For Dancing, Gordon took key elements of Shakespeare’s play — Henry’s debauched youth, his politically expedient abandonment of old friends, his going to war for economic reasons and with the moral force of religion behind him — and spun them into a contemporary fable whose parallels at times amuse but more often cut deeply.

The British-born Setterfield, Gordon’s life and artistic partner for the past 30-plus years, was the key to setting the tone for a work that easily could be but never became preachy. Her clipped delivery — sometimes cool, sometimes wry, and always straightforward — set up an ironic contrast with the mellifluous sonority of the Shakespearean language heard on tape. She brilliantly navigated between her roles as master of ceremonies, observing chorus, and when necessary, the various characters. Her function, she explained, was "to fill in, fill up, and fill out." She did so with the simplest of means. With direct addresses to the audience, while scurrying about or from her pedestal on a ladder, she interpreted the swiftly moving narrative. As the dying Falstaff, with a pillow held as a belly, she shrank in front of our eyes; as a woman with an adult-size rag doll in her arms, she became a mother who has lost a child to war; and as an attendant to Catherine of France, she was dainty, subservient, yet authoritative.

For all its simplicity, Gordon’s choreography is structured in overlapping phrases and precisely timed rhythms that are endlessly fascinating. Much of the dancing is robust, but it is always inflected. In the opening passage, the apparently random walks had a slight bounce to them. The Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls became a game of passing and bouncing — at first one, then two balls — while crisply circling walking patterns were maintained. During the multilevel battle of Agincourt, the pounding poles’ rhythmic accelerations suggested the rising violence. However, whether throwing dolls and folding chairs was the best way to choreograph the collapse of civility remains dubious.

Dancing is also elegant and refined. Setterfield’s charming English lesson to the future queen (a sturdy, fleet on her feet Karen Graham) was delivered as a minuet between the two women, their arms lacily acting out the anatomical vocabulary. After Falstaff’s death, Sadira A. Smith danced a lyrical solo that mourned the loss of innocence. In the courting duet, which became a trio with Setterfield as an intermediary, the dour king (a stocky Tadej Brdnik) even managed a low-level jeté or two. The costumes were rugby inspired, and Jennifer Tipton’s lush lighting design was brilliant. *