David Gordon has shifted the audience’s physical perspective at Joyce Soho just as he has been doing creatively for five decades. For his deftly layered, smart and stimulating new work, Beginning of the End of the…, the seating is along the north side of the black-box space, providing a much wider, shallower performing area. With four separate performance areas marked out within that area, it creates moments when it feels like one is watching a tennis match, keeping tabs on the action at opposite sides.
Gordon, one of the founding artists of the seminal Judson Dance Theater and a first-generation postmodernist, whose work has cleverly and unexpectedly blended speaking and movement, has been a shaggy, low-key but influential figure for years. Unconcerned with labels, he’s been considered one of the dance world’s luminaries, but his “constructions”—as he called his works for many years—called for performers comfortable with language and behavior as much as with identifiable steps.
Of late, he has applied his distinctive, sly approach to “collaborative adventures with dead artists,” including Shakespeare (Dancing Henry V) and Brecht (Uncivil Wars); I have particularly fond memories of Aristophanes in Birdonia, his timely and typically rambunctious take on a classic Greek comedy.
In his latest work, he has found an ideal “collaborator” in Luigi Pirandello, particularly his celebrated 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, as well as The Man with a Flower in his Mouth, a 1922 one-act, and a 1913 short story, A Character’s Tragedy. Tightly shaped, with a stellar and unflappable cast performing multiple roles, Beginning of the End of the… juxtaposes and deconstructs elements of all three, interweaving them with self-referential questioning and resentment of Gordon’s own intentions.
The cast includes Gordon himself seated at an upstage table as the “Director and Author,” who instructs, scolds and corrects the performers. Just as he may or may not be playing himself, the others move in and out of roles and situations with elegant nonchalance.
Leading the way is Valda Setterfield, the personification of downtown elegance as well as dry wit and patient exasperation. Identified in the program as “Leading Lady and Author’s Wife,” she is precisely that in real life, but Gordon has written and shaped the material so that her prickly exchanges with him resonate both literally and theatrically.
Moving across the various mini-stages and through portions of Pirandello’s texts, the performers take on and switch roles and personas with ease. Jennifer Tipton’s gracefully understated lighting helps immensely. The performers are adept at transporting and positioning the homespun, functional scenic pieces—including the frames that Gordon has favored and used with such dexterity in previous works—that create doorways and fluid settings.
Gordon has assembled a truly stellar group of mature artists. Gus Solomons (like Setterfield, a one-time Merce Cunningham dancer) reveals new gravitas, speaking and moving with equal grace. Feisty Norma Fire, querulous and skeptical, is a veteran of Gordon’s works, magnificently at home with his shifting perspectives and skewed repetitions. Charlotte Cohn and David Skeist hold up the theatrical end with aplomb, while a fine trio of seasoned dancers—Scott Cunningham, Karen Graham and Aaron Mattocks—reveal their mastery of understated, evocative movement, functioning as provocateurs and chorus.
Those who have followed Gordon’s career through the decades can find numerous reverberations and themes from earlier works. Just as the title of this tightly structured work reflects the way it circles back on itself, it also evokes a sense of looking backward as well as forward—an autumnal but fresh and nimble exploration by a veteran, yet constantly questioning, artist.
Beginning of the End of the…
Through June 30, Joyce Soho, 155 Mercer St. (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), www.joyce.org; times vary, $22.
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