David Gordon’s work (1972/2020) at the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival

Detail from the flyer image for <I>The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020</I>.<br />© David Gordon. (Click image for larger/full version)
Detail from the flyer image for The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020.
© David Gordon. (Click image for larger/full version)

David Gordon Pick Up Performance Company
The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020

FringeArts Fringe Festival, Philadelphia
Streamed in September/October 2020

David Gordon has been collaging past choreography and present variations, text and narration, video and photographs and graphic arts, personal and cultural history for so long that it is no surprise that when his contribution to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for 2020 had to be online, he was perfectly positioned to make something truly involving. Gordon’s choreography, often built from pedestrian movement, develops complexity from his overlapping, collage methods, a complexity much compounded by the visuals and narration. One of the original Judson Church postmodernists, Gordon, now 84, has been archiving his life’s work. His calls it Archiveography and his Archive website allows a very extensive and easy to navigate excursion into what he has done.

The Archive connects to the New York Public Library with its videos of his work. At the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts from December 2016 to April 2017 there was an exhibit, David Gordon: Archiveography – Under Construction. Associated performances were live – with Gordon narrating and live performers, including, most essentially, his wife Valda Setterfield, but much was a collage of video, photographs, and graphics. The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/20 reminds me of the live Archiveography at the library, but all of 1972/20 was videoed to be shown online, including performances by a large group of Philadelphia dancers who interpreted solos and duets from past Gordon works, from the original The Matter of 1972, the “Song and Dance” solo from The Matter’s 1979 version, Close Up, a duet from the 1979 Matter, and Chair from 1974.

To get all of the complex one hour video assembled, Gordon was much assisted by the Philadelphia theater designer and artist Jorge Cousineau and choreographer Wally Cardona. Both Gordon and Setterfield are superb narrators as they reminisce first about Gordon’s early life, like his love of movies, and then their life together. We see some of the many Philadelphia dancers early in black and white. In color current dancers do a solo from The Matter while we see Gordon, in black and white, dance back in the day.

How much song and dance in movies meant to Gordon can be seen in a collage with the Philadelphia dancers and Gordon, too, dancing a rehearsal of parts of the solo “Song and Dance.“ The black and white of the 2020 dancers learning the solo connects 2020 with the old footage. There’s a shift into color as they continue and also to what we see of the twenty-one dancers who learned the solo in 1979 to Little Eva’s “Do the Locomotion.” Gordon quotes a review to fill us in on how he started with the solo in silence before the twenty-one dance to the propulsive song. Time moves forward and back in 1972/2020.

And back we go to the present day Philadelphia dancers in color, dancing outside now in various places in the city to a banjo tune. Graphics, as in Archiveography, show up at various times, as before the Philadelphians are collaged dancing in lush green settings. A couple dance indoors before more graphics about virtual dance. Close Up (from 1979) is the duet, by various current dancers, while Gordon and Setterfield reminisce about how Gordon got started dancing in college and falling in love then, too, with photography.

Close Up dancers continue as Valda and David talk about how they met and danced and married. And we see them dancing together long ago. Redoing The Matter in 2018, Wally Cardona and Karen Graham dance Close Up, now to romantic piano music rather than 1979’s silence, music we hear as Philadelphians dance it, and, blending into the collage at times, David and Valda. We feel the sentiment growing before David says it got too sentimental; it’s particularly moving when we see David and Valda dancing it at a rehearsal onstage, interrupted by technicians, in 2001.

Flyer image for <I>The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020</I>.<br />© David Gordon. (Click image for larger/full version)
Flyer image for The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020.
© David Gordon. (Click image for larger/full version)

The outdoor performance is canceled. It’s a rainy night at the World Trade Center on September 10, in the middle, we thought, of a wonderful dance festival that was happening there. I’d gone to several performances and planned to go that night before it was rained out.

Back to 1974. Nixon resigns. We begin to see bits of a dance with a chair in the collage of photos and texts as we find out that Valda was in a car hit by a train and seriously injured. David visits Valda in the hospital. It’s heartbreaking as they tell us this in their precise, dry, but rich manner. How to get her back to her dancing self?  David helps Valda recover with a chair, and that becomes a dance. We see the Philadelphia dancers dancing Chair, the manipulative minimalist dance collaged in various ways.

Collage is such a well-developed method for Gordon that he can build it in 1972/2020 in ways that so many others, Zooming and collaging in pandemic 2020, can’t achieve. The complex visuals are expertly constructed. It’s all held together by the narration by Gordon and Setterfield, so skillfully built to entertain, inform, and move us. The Philadelphians continue with the manipulations of the Chair, one in the rain, as we hear Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Gordon knows when to be explicit, about say, the joys of song and dance, and when to suggest loss and darkness by implication.

About the author

Susanna Sloat

Susanna Sloat is a writer and editor in New York City who has written about many kinds of dance, recently mostly for Ballet Review. She is the editor of “Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures” (2010) and “Caribbean Dance from Abakuá to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity” (2002), both available from University Press of Florida.

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