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    2017-2018 reviews:


    Dancing Henry Five
    Photo by Photo by Chris Ha. Photo art by Brian Achs.

    Stand a tip-toe when this day is named

    David Gordon and the Pick Up Performance Company's "Dancing Henry Five" gracefully delivers an abbreviated Shakespeare, indeed atop and atip ladders, toes and folding chairs.


    David Gordon's "Dancing Henry Five," recently performed at Danspace Project, is an exercise in the pleasures of locution. A danced digest of Shakespeare's play set to vintage recordings of the play and to William Walton's film score for the Laurence Olivier "Henry V," Gordon's performance is as much about manner and comment as it about the story.

    Company: David Gordon and the Pick Up Performance Company.
    Choreography by: David Gordon.
    Directed by: David Gordon.
    Dancers: Todd Allen, Tadej Brdnik, Karen Graham, Christopher Morgan, Valda Setterfield, Daniel Smith and Luis de Robles Tentido.
    Music by: William Walton.
    After William Shakespeare's "Henry V"
    Danspace Project
    St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St.
    Jan. 8-18, 2004

    Seating the audience on both sides of the sanctuary of St. Marks Church, the piece was played for width rather than front, creating a gymnasium-like atmosphere. Many scenes are constructed as rule-games, and lay claim to their relationship to the voiceover text only very slowly. Foremost is the manner of doing things. In this, there is a slightly archaic focus to the usual Pick Up Performance Co. mode. As a group, they employ a performance mode of casual formality. The dance phrases build primarily from walking variations — lots of lunges in Henry. All the performers are in full command of a classical training without paying it too much heed. So there is a casual grace to things. Add to that a dose of classical theatrical manner (think of a time when American actors went for a hard, but refined, locution) and you have the tone of Gordon's "Henry." The resulting style is quite beautiful, quite calm, rooted in multiple traditions, some of which critique each other — though this creates not contradiction but a sense of balance. An example: introducing a party scene, they use the acknowledged shorthand of a boar's head ceremonially carried about by one of the dancers, to refer to the male, hunting-party type setting. But the boar's head is a frame hung with a cardboard sign that reads "boar's head." Thus the classical modern and postmodern stage styles peaceably coexist in this production.

    The marvelous Valda Setterfield acts as the chorus, guiding us through the story and explaining their mode as she goes, careful to refer to the authorship of each Henry- Shakespeare's, Walter's, Gordon's. Beginning atop a ladder amidst a pile of recycled props (their shows-of-origin are all listed in the program), she explains that Shakespeare's "Henry" is five acts and takes five hours, while Gordon's "Henry" has one act and will take one hour. She explains that she, as "Gordon's Chorus," will move us through the story, and once in a while offer an opinion, not hers of course, "but Gordon's."

    The resulting style is quite beautiful, quite calm, rooted in multiple traditions, some of which critique each other — though this creates not contradiction but a sense of balance.  

    The story advances like this: reminding us of Henry's earlier manifestation as the errant prince Hal, and his friend Falstaff, Setterfield introduces a bawdy dance, wherein drunkenness is implied. Setterfield explains that Henry, upon ascending to the throne, discovers gravitas ("No one is more moral than a born-again moralist") and rejects good Falstaff. Excerpted text from Laurence Olivier's film version of Henry plays. Tricia Brouk dances a simple, lunge-filled dance, which slowly settles in relation to the text. Setterfield lies down on a table, draped with cloth, as the dying Falstaff. Then abruptly she casts off the cloth and says, "Okay, Falstaff is dead."

    Throughout the production, Setterfield's commentary (those opinions of Gordon's she occasionally offers) extracts from the old story some timely meditations on war and kings. This operation on the work of Shakespeare, especially his Richard and Henry plays, seems to be so impossible to resist as to be inevitable. Like much else in this production, these comments are not exactly on fire, but rather come with a settled opinion, excellently articulated. Oddly their weight is mitigated by the production's archaic grace and politesse. Gordon may not have too much to say that's good about kings, but courtliness has survived his dance intact.

    The battle of Agincourt too is more ceremonial than firey or brutal. Armed with sticks, folding chairs and a one-two rhythm, the battle scene doesn't energetically stand too far out from the rest of the scenes. Walton's music for this scene verges on corny, and feels dated. But if Agincourt doesn't get to the heart of battle (admittedly difficult in a dance performance), the images that precede and follow the battle scene more than repay our attention, getting straight to the evocative point: the famous St. Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..."), in which the cast, perched on chairs, rotates on tiptoe, gesturing simply; and then the final image of the skewered dead, in which dancers and stuffed dummies lay strewn over chairs and about the space, gorgeously lit by Jennifer Tipton (that's Tipton's "Henry," a simultaneous enterprise).

    Sometimes it is hard to take in everything that's happening, and Shakespeare's rich text gets folded into the atmosphere, especially when the voiceovers come in to dances that are always underway. When this happens, the timbre of the voice (especially Laurence Olivier's) gives things a wrapping-up feel, a possessed sense of nobility, of thinking on things, as is Right and Just to do. I lost the details of the thoughts occasionally, but I think that most of the audience could well be assumed to have read or seen Henry at least once before, so the transmission of all the excellent words is not a priority.

    Always a pleasure of seeing the Pick Up Performance Company is getting to be in a room where Karen Graham is dancing. She has a consistent, undisturbed grace, and remarkable exactitude. In addition to Graham, Setterfield and Brouk, the other lovely performers were Todd Allen, Tadej Brdnik, Christopher Morgan, Daniel Smith and Luis de Robles Tentido. Stage Manager Ed Fitzgerald also did a very good job of collecting sticks.

    Well-met, Mr. Gordon.

    JANUARY 19, 2004

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