Originally created 01/13/04

David Gordon takes on Shakespeare in 'Dancing Henry Five'



NEW YORK -- More than four centuries after Shakespeare beseeched audiences to "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts," David Gordon has emerged with "Dancing Henry Five."

The veteran director-choreographer makes leaps of faith easy with his new dance. His latest work condenses the bard's five-act play, "Henry V," into an hourlong whirlwind, emphasizing such scenes as Falstaff's death and the battle of Agincourt and dispensing with others.

The work is complemented with recordings by Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer. Valda Setterfield, Gordon's creative partner and wife, narrates as the rest of the Pick Up Performance dancers move about her, staggering as drunken royal revelers or furiously rearranging a line of folding metal chairs in a stark evocation of a shifting battle line.

In Gordon's depiction of the English court's decision to make war, followed by France's insulting gift of tennis balls, the dancers toss a large red ball back and forth as they lope around each other in loose but decorous patterns. Nothing changes, nothing is accomplished.

Gordon's set design is as important as his direction of human beings. His dancers take on multiple personas, and his simple sets - a ladder, a skeletal folding door - are constantly rearranged by the dancers to suit their evolving needs. The same is true of the costumes - knee socks, shorts and striped polo shirts reminiscent of rugby uniforms that are alternately worn as capes and skirts.

Throughout, Setterfield remains the calm but riveting center. Besides keeping the narrative flowing, she editorializes - not her opinion, she slyly notes, but Gordon's. Not surprisingly, allusions to Iraq abound, with Gordon chafing at the notion that patriotism equals unqualified support of war.

Thankfully, Gordon is too savvy an artist to let a political agenda undermine his craft. Humor and deft movement phrasings leave little room for ham-handed handling. "Dancing Henry Five," like Shakespeare's play, offers audiences a performance as much about the art of performing as the moralities of war.

Dancer Tadej Brdnik is superb as a mischievous but haunted Henry. The production is further enhanced by Jennifer Tipton's lighting and William Walton's music.

"Dancing Henry Five," which premiered Thursday, runs through Jan. 18 at St. Mark's Church.

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