Sunday, May 20, 2007

Oh Henry

David Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Co(S.) Production in Dancing Henry Five
ODC Theater, San Francisco
May 17 2007

The questions Thursday were posed like the opening of a Polish joke: how many dancers does it take to perform a four-hour Shakespeare history play about a feckless war, and how long does it take them to do it?

“Dancing Henry Five” by David Gordon, eminent-grise of post-modernism, answered with sly simplicity: it takes seven dancers (plus three large dolls), a nimble narrator, and a healthy hour. No joke.

As straightforward as that sounds, Gordon’s Shakespeare reduction was created from parts as polished as old bone and put together with a comic and elegant sense of design. It dropped what was inessential (the battle of Harfleur) and kept the critical (the devastating rout of the French at Agincourt). Enormous care went into the parade of hand-held signboards that alerted us with fanfare that the show was beginning, into the flow of chairs in space, into how cloth billowed and a trio of men stood upon moving fabric like heroic ships, window frames became field tents, dancers waltzed, and irony flowed. The result was pared-down drama that succeeded in being poignant, wise and sweetly cheeky.

“Dancing Henry Five” concerns one of Shakespeare’s sorrier tales of vanity, hubris and benightedness and how, together, they find company in an almost endless war designed to strengthen a politician and church’s position at home. Greed was a primary motivator—King Henry V was manipulated by the Archbishop of Canterbury to drop progressive legislation and encouraged to seek money from abroad. In other words, he was to attack France to let the English forget their financial woes. To add nuance to the goings-on, Gordon uses as his starting point an already reduced Laurence Olivier film version of the play, which was created as a bit of propaganda during WW II. So when Setterfield speaks in tandem with dialogue from the film we get a deft conceptualist overlay of how the same events can be read anew in another age.

Our Henry at the helm is the once naughty Prince Harry, Harry of the pub and the whorehouse. As you’ll remember, he was the happy bad boy who hung out with bawdy Falstaff in Henry IV until a conversion experience and a crown turned him into a self-righteous Henry V, who renounces his dying hedonist friend and copes with the nation’s complexities through a mix of duplicity and bellicosity. The parallels to our dry-drunk born-again President are obvious yet sophisticated and made by ethereal narrator Valda Setterfield, whose lanky body is a mix of vaudevillian and May Queen. And although she ironically warns us from her station on a ladder that these are Gordon’s opinions, not hers, we believe by her knowing delivery that they’re every bit hers as well.

Before much ado, the work dives in with exquisitely simple sets that the company recycles (ladders, folding chairs, large rectangles of stripey fabric) and delectable lighting (Jennifer Tipton) to deconstruct without an ounce of jargon the messy business of Henry Five and, by association, George Two. Setterfield, who’s been married to Gordon since the 60s and is a former Ballet Rambert and Cunningham Company dancer, has the right sophistication for such a bare-bone task. With swirling pace, she moves us from point to point, compressing, summing up, letting us know what’s been omitted, drawing the parallels so the company of mostly men can sweep in and assume their posts as soldiers, countrymen and kings. They fight by way of percussively striking poles against the ground, creating a poetically spare sense of menace and foreboding. They set up long window frames as tents amid shadows and vermillion light. As for the additional women in the cast, the beautiful pixyish dancer Sadira Smith, who brings her own magic to the action, and the smooth-limbed Karen Graham inject a keen feminine irony into the proceedings, while William Walton’s symphonic score keeps us aptly locked between the clear dance beats of the Renaissance and the emotional tempests of the violent 20th century.

Gordon, who has been absent from the Bay Area a woefully long time, gnaws on the work’s contradictions deftly, like a clown who is both erudite and detached and loves chiseled language as he loves starkly elemental dance. As a contretemps between wary Renaissance states, for instance, we get the quintessential post-mod-ironic exercise: a dance with balls (a “screw off” from France in the form of a gift: a cache of tennis balls), here offered as a courtly dance that expands with the accretion of tasks (throw orange ball plus move; throw orange ball, move plus bounce once; throw orange and green balls, move, bounce twice etc….).

The dancers, dressed in striped rugby shirts with extra sleeves, upside down or draped as overskirts, plus 15th century-ish caps, were able to blend the present and past with apt irony, from the touching and canny minuet between Setterfield as English language tutor and Karen Graham as Catherine of Valois, preparing for the amorous side of political siege (“Big weddings are hell to pull off,” Setterfield remarks with typical piquancy); to the depiction of battle in which both England and France lose half their forces. Tadej Brndnik performed Henry with the right mix of boyish self-importance and wry likeability. (Other performers were Lloyd Knight, Eli McAffee, Guillermo Ortega and David Zurak.) The dancey rhythms of Walton livened up the action with suitable irony of its own and gave 21st century weight to the 15th century action.

We’ve heard the question often these last years: how does an artist make art about our dire time? Gordon’s luminously unaffected dance theater, created in 2004, offers what seems like an almost forgotten and indisputably sagacious response: he locates our tragic compulsion to repeat, often manipulated by blind self-interest couched in the name of larger good, and shows its wryly tragic results. The excuses change, the weapons grow more deadly, and the costs escalate, but the outcome is the same: death and sorrow. In the very finest dance, the elements also change, but the results don’t: beautiful movement and no small pool of enlightenment. Dancing Henry Five gave us both.

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