The choreographer and director takes on Pirandello
Tue May 29 2012
Photograph: Andrew Eccles
In recent years, choreographer and director David Gordon has tackled Brecht, Ionesco and Shakespeare in dance-theater productions that shift between illusion and reality. For the postmodern artist—an original member of the experimental Judson Dance Theater—the shift between theater and life is endlessly fascinating (and, in his work, purposefully hazy). Now he takes on the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello, whose work so closely mirrors his own that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where one leaves off and the other begins. In Beginning of the End of the…, which is at the Joyce Soho for four weeks beginning June 1, Gordon has invented a choreographic world that melds three of Pirandello’s works (the play Six Characters in Search of an Author, the short story “A Character’s Tragedy” and the one-act The Man with the Flower in His Mouth) with his humorous, dictatorial directing style that puts his thoughts in everyone’s mouths—including that of his wife, Valda Setterfield. He spoke about the piece in his Soho loft.
How did this project develop?
The Pirandello has to do with all the stuff I’ve been doing lately—the Pirandello following the Brecht and the Brecht following the Ionesco.
It’s a logical progression?
It’s so logical, and it’s so connected. I realize that Pirandello is talking about illusion and reality. That’s what Ionesco is dealing with and, oh, wait a minute: Everybody I’m choosing to work with along the way seems to have either known about the other person, experienced the other person, is moving on from the other person.… I just seem to be on some historical trail that I didn’t know existed. I went online and looked up Pirandello, and there are a bunch of short videos made in London with an English cast doing parts of Six Characters while somebody talks about the relationship between Pirandello and Ionesco and Brecht. I never heard anybody say that before. I had nothing to compare what I was thinking to, but there it is. The [scene in Six Characters] about how two babies die—I turn them into Raggedy Ann and Andy, thinking how inventive I am—and then I look at this little bit of tape, and they bring in two dummies. I was thinking about all of this, and I realized that a long time ago, I made a piece called Wordsworth and the Motor  and it happened here [at the loft]. I rented bleachers and put them at both ends of the space; Valda and I came in on the two sides, and we began to do the same concert. A wall was built in between, so the audience that first saw each other now could not only not see each other, they couldn’t see the other one of us. They could only hear us.
Who built the wall?
Ain [Gordon, their son] and the stage manager built the wall as we danced and spoke. That was in part based on the fact that [dance writer] Sally Banes had given me the Erving Goffman book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Simultaneously, I had a book that was about systems analysis. In the course of all that comes [New Yorker dance critic] Arlene Croce and New York City Ballet and Stravinsky and [Balanchine’s] Apollo; and then comes The Mysteries and What’s So Funny? [1990–’91], which starts out to be about Stravinsky and turns out to be about Duchamp. Each of these things—the work of artists and other humans, in some ways, seems to be what I feel connected to. And I realize that starting with Random Breakfast , everything I have ever have done has in it some leakage from the few things I learned piece by piece. Random Breakfast has Milton Berle because I don’t know anything about the theater. It has in it TV; that’s what I know something about. Recently I did a Skype interview for [choreographer] Jawole [Willa Jo Zollar] at Florida State University, and she asked me to tell her students about how I came to deal with movement and text. I don’t know how or when I did that, except when I realized that I didn’t know anything about dancing or theater—what I knew were movies, and in movies, people talked right up to the minute they started dancing. Sometimes they talked when they were dancing. I thought that talking and dancing came together.
You’re referring to Fred Astaire films?
Yes! For me, it always was about text and movement and their connection. I had never gone through a separate training life for my body. I was just at Bennington teaching for Dana Reitz, and one night we went to a restaurant. In talking about the students there, Dana asked, “Who were you between the ages of 17 and 20?” Well, when I was 17, I was an art major. I followed a woman to the dance department. Now I was an art major who was dancing. Then the dance club got to be in Peer Gynt, and now I was an art major who was a dancer in a play in which I was being a troll. And then somebody said, “You should come to this audition,” and now I was the star of the production of something called Dark of the Moon: I played a rich guy who spoke with a Southern accent, danced like a witch and climbed around on a mountain. So I was talking, dancing and acting.
How exactly did you land on Pirandello?
Sometimes what happens is that when I buy some books, I buy more books. The reason I made the first ballet [Field, Chair and Mountain for American Ballet Theatre, 1985] and used the music of John Field was because I had been dealing with Arlene and Apollo and Stravinsky. I read all about Stravinsky, and I learn that he loves Mozart, so I go and buy 30 cassettes and I listen to them and say to myself, Mozart doesn’t need me. [Laughs] Mozart is doing it all by himself. I don’t even know how to get on that wagon. Now I start listening to other things, like Chopin, and I discover that there is this Irish composer named John Field who is credited with inventing the nocturne. That’s where I end up. So in every one of these things I begin to do some causal research, which gets more intense and in the course of dealing with Brecht and Ionesco I buy some things and now I have all of Pirandello’s plays. I know about Six Characters. I don’t know the script very well, but I know that it’s called Six Characters in Search of an Author. This sounds like I wrote it. [Laughs] I’m also going to discover that an awful lot about what I’m looking at and reading is related to an awful lot of other things, including growing up a very long time ago with a radio program called Let’s Pretend. It was fairytales acted out on Saturday mornings. At some point, my mother gets tickets to see the radio show . On the stage are a lot of men and women in suits and ladies in their hats and high-heeled shoes with scripts standing in front of microphones, and I am looking at the world I heard on the radio to now be this world of ordinary-looking people turning into these characters. Somehow or other, I am not disappointed. It’s not terrible for me that it takes these people to make those [characters] happen. There’s something about it that remains absolutely remarkable.
How are you using the space at the Joyce Soho?
I have divided it into four separate stages, and part of that has to do with the fact that Jennifer Tipton is doing the lights. When we went to the Joyce Soho to look around, I managed to sit there in the space looking at it through Jennifer’s eyes. I said, “This is really boring for you, right? The ceiling is too low. You can’t do a whole lot.” I am building alleys in between the four stages so that I can roll lights and moving doors and chairs. Somebody could be dancing on one stage while somebody is speaking on another stage. It is very interesting for me. How does somebody get from one stage to the next? And what is the behavior when you are in between performance spaces? I, who don’t do a lot these days—and would not actually be performing in this except to save money—am sitting in a chair at a desk with the script.
How do you approach directing?
I would say that some people are really labeled directors, and that would mean to me that they are very helpful to actors. They know how to help actors achieve certain things. I think as a director, I’m a really good stager. I know how to move things around. I don’t think my behavior is consistent. I think even when I start out with a behavioral intention, I find it very hard to keep that. It is frequently subverted by whatever else is happening or whatever else I’m feeling. So when [a cast member looks] for a kind of consistency and tells me, “My character wouldn’t say that,” I really only want to know: If your character did say that, how would that have come about? How would your character have said something you think that your character would never say? I frequently find myself saying something and thinking, Do you really think that? [Laughs] So directing for me is a lot about not directing. When the choreography was more about physical choreographic things, the thing I was trying to do a whole lot of the time, and one of the miracles of working with Dean Moss and Mr. [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, is that I could get rid of something that looked like preparation. I could get rid of the inevitable thing that needed to begin or end [movement] because they could just do the thing without appearing to get ready to do it. That’s sort of what I like about working with actors who can go to a place without having to have logically arrived at it three pages before. I make everybody nuts because I take a sentence that has a that or a the in it—“So I went to the place that had the something”—and I make it: “I went to the something,” and then “I went someplace” and little by little I cut out the things that hold it together so it punches. I remove the in-between words.
I always feel that what you’re after in words is a certain rhythm.
It is all about that. I keep saying that to everybody all the time: Can’t you hear the music of this? It is the music of it all that I’m listening to. I looked on the Internet to see who the contemporary composers of Pirandello were, and I found, bizarrely, that it was Puccini. I looked for Puccini without opera, without words, and there is very little. I have found two pieces of music, which I am using with some repetition. Oneis a minuet, and one is Crisantemi, or Chrysanthemums, which is an elegy and suits me very well for the [scene involving the] death of the children in the garden. It started as the telling of the story, and then it started to be telling lines from the story, and then it started to be the headline on a paper: “Girl child drowns.” How many ways can I tell this? It’s getting it down to the most minimal language to describe the tragedy.
In reading Pirandello, it seems so clear that you could have written it. How bizarre is that for you?
Sometimes I say to the actors: “This right here, this is him. So say this right.” [Laughs] “This over here is me.” It’s very amazing.
How did you end up at the Joyce Soho?
[Joyce Theater’s executive director] Linda Shelton had come to see a run-through before APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference] that we were doing at the Joyce Soho, and she said, “I would like to produce this. Do you want to have a week at the Joyce or a month at Joyce Soho?” I said a month. I went back to the original cast, and the thing I wanted this time around was one or two other dancers; I wanted to try and make more movement. What would the movement that I would be making now be? I only could afford one more person, so I have Aaron Mattocks, and he’s working terrifically nicely with [dancers] Scott [Cunningham] and Karen [Graham]. Gus [Solomons Jr.] is walking with a cane. He has just had surgery on his back. I said, “If you can show me and tell me what it is you can do of the movement, I would be very interested to see how you can claim this.” So I have [dancers with] various abilities dealing with certain kinds of movement, which includes the fact that Charlotte [Cohen] and David [Skeist], neither of whom are dancers, have learned all of the movement and are doing it with the dancers and with Gus and his stick. I’m looking at a stage full of people doing this movement in a way that’s like that miracle of the moment before something that’s perfect. I have been enjoying it every single time I see it. At some point in the script, somebody is asking: “Where’s the new character, Woman with Jacket, and where are the dancers?” And t Woman with Jacket says, “I’m not new, and all the characters always dance.” For me, that is what this has been about. Can I make enough movement that this has a reason to be at Joyce Soho, which is a movement-based presentation organization? And can the movement still be the movement I’m interested in doing now? And can it be done by all these people? That’s what I’m working on.
Why are you interested in creating more movement now?
Now that I can move less, I wanna make more movement.
Why did you choose a month at the Joyce Soho over a week at the Joyce?
A month of performances gives me the opportunity to look at the piece. I don’t get enough touring to ever get to look at something in a lot of places and in a lot of ways. However long I get to work at something, which is a limited amount of time, it goes on some stage, and unless something miraculous happens, I never see it again. So here was a possibility in which I could take a look at how it works: for an audience and in this space. And five performances a week is a reasonable amount of time, and it gives all of these people who I am very fond of and who are very faithful to me a way to make some money. And I can try something out that the Joyce Soho hasn’t done and which might give them some idea about how to program in the future so that everything [there] doesn’t end up being three nights. It was really about that, and the fact that somebody was willing to take that kind of risk with this material and with me. I’m really interested to see how this works more than once, because I think to myself, I could possibly finish this run, sit with the script for six months, rethink it and listen to more music and figure out more ways of dealing with space. And then come back six months from now and do the next version of it.
What character does Valda play?
Everybody plays two characters, because everybody plays one of the six characters [in the play] and one of the characters from the short story. I play the author and the director; Valda plays the author’s wife and the leading lady. At some point, Valda says to the audience about me: “He’s impatient. Impatient with his would-be characters and impatient with me. It’s his nature to not be easily pleased.” I say, “I don’t like being hoodwinked.” And she says, “And to avoid hookwinkedness, you determine to get to the bottom of everything with impossibly long, detailed argument.” And I say, “Reasonable discussion.” And she says, “Cross-examination too early in the morning or too late at night.” And I say, “I watch you watch the clock.” And she says, “Maybe I have something else to do, or it’s boring.” I say, “Which is it now?” And she says, “It’s boring.” And I say, “And who are you now?” And she says, “I’m your wife, and you are the author, except when you’re the director, but both of you tell us all what to do, and if we do or say something back, you tell us we should have done it or said it back better. You enjoy arguing and we don’t. Or maybe they do and I don’t.” So Valda and I play Valda and me, except that Valda then has many other things to do in relation to everybody else. Aside from an occasional line about something that’s happening with them and a bunch of little speeches that are Pirandellian, I just sit reading my script and watching them all.
David Gordon’s Beginning of the end of the…is at the Joyce Soho June 1–30.