David Gordon dies aged 85

David Gordon died on January 29th 2022 in NYC. We have lost one of the key movers and shakers of the Judson Church Post Moderns.

He thought he’d be a teacher, then an artist, and eventually followed a colleague into a modern dance class where he found his passion.

New York, 06/02/2022
By Jody Oberfelder

When I first moved to New York, I saw an audition post for David Gordon that stated “Dancers must be 5’6” or over. I called up and said, “That’s discrimination.” The voice on the other end said, “We know.” So it wasn’t the right company for me, being a short mercurial dancer. He simply wanted a taller company to balance the magnificent height of his wife Valda Setterfield, and his own bear like power.

David Gordon died at age 85 this week on Jan 29th in NYC. We have lost one of the key movers and shakers (or should I say movers and walkers) of the Judson Church Post Moderns. Our whole generation is formed by what came before: this begat that, and that spawned other people who rebelled, thereby opening the next wave of makers who counter and challenge. Our ideas of what dance IS has shifted so much since the early pioneers of Modern Dance. We are influenced by this history, living in its wakes. We are connected via history and the ever-changing present.

I remember seeing “Chair Dance” and wondering what the hell was going on. It was so matter of fact, so playfully serious, so opposite his forbearers’ ultra-dramatic chair dances of Anna Sokolow and others. Finding moves that incorporate the everyday, the present, and creatively maneuvering actions into simple, yet deep complex forms made you think. Is this dance? Does it matter?

I got an internal taste of this movement, performing in Steve Paxton’s work in 2013 at MoMA, and in Simon Forti’s pieces “Dance Constructions 2018” in a gallery for five months in MoMA’s show: “Judson Church: The Work is Never Done.”
The idea of not to push, to just be present, to do the task at hand, paramount to the wave of post modernism, was everywhere in this program. And seeing it through a modern lens, somehow impassioned. David Gordon showed “The Matter 1971/2018”, in which he recenters his earlier work with present day commentary. The performers were amazing and so cleverly in the zone. David’s performance was clearly positioned in this vibrant array of rebels, making its mark with his own iconoclastic brand of humor via a crack the human condition.

David Gordon was born on the Lower East Side on Ludlow Street. He thought he’d be a teacher, then an artist, and eventually followed a colleague into a modern dance class where he found his passion. He and his wife to be Valda Setterfield, fresh from the UK, both danced with James Warring. She was forever his love and muse. And together they birthed a son. Ain Gordon, now an accomplished playwright, was born.

In the early 60s, Robert Ellis Dunn was teaching a composition class shaking up the traditional ABA, Rondo mimicking of musical forms, and asking key questions about making things with movement. Also in this group were Meredith Monk, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. They all started showing their work at Judson Church. A handful of them, including Douglas Dunn and others, formed Grand Union, a wild improvisation group in the 70s. I saw one of their final performances first year I moved to NYC. Sitting above in the balcony at La MaMa, I was amazed, flabbergasted, amused, and confused. I was that audience member who felt with a bird’s eye view, watching them in real time negotiate, argue, splinter off in their own orbits, and come together somehow. I felt so young and naïve and knew somehow that these were historical moments. David Gordon offered intense physicality, and witty ways with words. Here we witnessed dance that was not just about the technical training, and that the end goal might be something other than a shiny packaged show.

I’m impressed with the collaborative closeness of these groups, cross-hatching of ideas, freewheeling and yet highly intellectual practices. Everyone brought their own sensibility to the next branch of the Modern Dance Tree.

On the great continuum, in the evolution of our dance forms, the life and work of David Gordon leaves an impression. My memory of David Gordon’s work is mostly black and white, recorded stills - stark pre-digital photos, remnants archived. We inhale the fermented ideas once so rebellious, the imprints of dances left behind in the air. It’s tangible. We inadvertently incorporate the experimental climate of the postmodern, into the post-post-modern, and whatever we call it now, into new ways of seeing, working, and bringing into life a live form into our own practices.
Then, now. David Gordon, thank you for creating, and being part of our dance world.


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