David Gordon in Memory

David Gordon died on January 29, 2022 in the SoHo loft where he lived, worked, and sometimes performed with his wife, the dancer/performer Valda Setterfield, in concert with artists comprising the renowned Pick Up Performance Company—and where he and Valda raised their son, Ain, an assured performance artist in his own right.

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Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield, David Gordon. Photo: Joe Fornabaio

The notion of “pickup” is a clue to David’s particular take on the world that he had fallen into. It underscores the impermanence of the ever-changing cluster of dancers, actors, designers, production folks, and others with whom he collaborated. It was the opposite of what was expected of a serious artist: a bona fide, full-time company.

David was ferociously loyal. He created work with people he knew and loved. The roster evolved, but once in the loft of David’s imagination, no one fell off the pickup list for long. He had it his way!

A multi-arts autodidact, David mastered and reinvented every field in which he colluded: dance, theater, film, design, writing. He tore them apart and stamped them with big, irreverent insights.

David planned nothing but prepared painstakingly for everything.

In 1978, I was recruited by Jane Yockel to be the booking manager for Performing Artservices Inc., which had airy offices overlooking the Hudson on the 12th floor of Westbeth (once a research facility for a telephone company) in the West Village. Artservices, as it was known, was the brainchild of three women—Jane, Margaret Wood, and Mimi Johnson—who believed the survivability of an American avant-garde dance, music, or theater artist was a function of cogent administration. If the world was saying that John Cage, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley, Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer, Trisha Brown, and David Gordon (all among its clients) were suspicious and dubious, that was ok. The world was mired in provincial limitations; therefore, the business underpinning of forward-directed creativity had to be impeccable and above reproach. The drumbeat of professionalism had to be deafening.

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Chair (1974) Photo: Robert Alexander

Setting out to find bookings for those artists, as my job required, I encountered David in his loft, performing with Valda, deploying two black metal folding chairs as partners or, in my view, insurgent devices. Those purported inanimate chairs do have legs and backs, mind you! Few experiences have delighted me more than seeing that lithe, bearded man and his gorgeous wife at work with mundane, industrial-strength chairs.

In hindsight, The Chair Dances, as I call them, were a stealth turning point in my becoming a manager, producer, and programmer. If what I was seeing or hearing did not shatter my preconceptions of performance, then what was the point of committing my time to it?

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Dancing Henry Five (2011) Photo: Paula Court

In subsequent years, David and I made stuff happen—right into 2021, with the PEAK Plus live performance capture of The New Adventures Of Old David (What Happened 1978-2021), which can be viewed now as a prescient epitaph. Kudos Alyce Dissette!

Perhaps because his contributions to the field were immeasurable—and because he began his artistic journey with the likes of Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, and Lucinda Childs, tumbling into the stream of dance consciousness from The Judson Church and later finding an admiring enthusiast in Mikhail Baryshnikov (at ABT and White Oak)—many categorize him as a choreographer. But that descriptor is insufficient. He was a director, a designer, a filmmaker, an editor, a stylist, a storyteller, an essayist, a philosopher, and a mensch. And he danced! He reimagined Ionesco (in The Chairs), Pirandello (in Plays and Writings), and Shakespeare (in Dancing Henry Five), and even reframed Brecht (in Uncivil Wars).

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The Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1992) Photo: Andrew Eccles

Truly memorable among my projects with David was The Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1991), with Red Grooms and Philip Glass, for Serious Fun! at Lincoln Center and the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. Valda was Marcel Duchamp piloting a “pickup” starship featuring Scott Cunningham, Norma Fire, Dean Moss, Lola Pashalinski, Alice Playten, Karen Graham, Karen Kandel, and Alan Johnson with the unflappable Ed Fitzgerald as stage manager. David was its writer and director.

Nor should one forget David’s masterful production of the Robert Brustein/Zalmen Mlotek/Arnold Weinstein/Hankus Netsky musical Shlemiel the First, an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s parable Chelm, which originated at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. One of PEAK’s most successful shows featuring a kick line of rabbis dancing with black metal chairs.

Falling off his chair and through the cracks might be David’s summary of his own career. But that characteristic act of self-effacement would be a ruse hatched by an evasive genius vainly hoping to cover his tracks.

To the contrary, his trail is unmistakable: David Gordon was a visionary.

He transformed lives, including mine.

Jedediah Wheeler
Executive Director
Arts + Cultural Programming

Watch the final piece David completed
The New Adventures of Old David (What Happened — 1978/2021)
a film for PEAK Performances.