Valda Setterfield, a star in the postmodern dance firmament, dies at 88

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Valda Setterfield, a star in the postmodern dance firmament, dies at 88
From left, Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper, Jonah Bokaer, Catherine Miller and James McGinn in “Anchises,” a collaboration between the choreographer Jonah Bokaer and the design firm Harrison Atelier, at the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan, Nov. 16, 2010. Setterfield, a leading figure in the New York dance world for 60 years and the wife and muse of the renowned choreographer David Gordon, died on April 9, 2023, in Manhattan. She was 88. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Alastair Macaulay

NEW YORK, NY.- Valda Setterfield, a leading figure in the New York dance world for 60 years and the wife and muse of renowned choreographer David Gordon, died April 9 in Manhattan. She was 88.

Alyce Dissette, producing director of the Pick Up Performance Company, which Gordon founded in 1971, said Setterfield died in her sleep in a hospital, which she had entered a week earlier with pneumonia.

In a career that took her from Russian ballerina and teacher Tamara Karsavina to Woody Allen, from Jasper Johns to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Setterfield was often Gordon’s onstage partner, an association that began before their marriage in 1961 and lasted until their 2018 season at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was also closely associated with Merce Cunningham, as a dancer in his company, a teacher of his technique and one of his trusted friends.

Setterfield had a singularly theatrical presence onstage, and often offstage as well, dressing imaginatively in clothes she had assembled from thrift shops. That theatricality was heightened by her impeccable diction and her low, melodious speaking voice. She and Gordon were once called “the Barrymores of postmodern dance.”

Valda Setterfield was born Sept. 17, 1934, in Margate, England, in the county of Kent, and grew up in the Kent town of Birchington-on-Sea. She was the only child of Eileen (Walker) Setterfield, a homemaker, and Thomas Valentine Setterfield, who went from venture to venture professionally.

Her passion for dance, which she discovered when she was about 4, took her to London, where she studied with Karsavina and Marie Rambert. She watched the foremost dancers of the day at Covent Garden and other theaters, forming a particular devotion to Margot Fonteyn.

When Setterfield was in her early 20s, she met critic and performer David Vaughan, an Englishman with an eclectic taste in dance forms who had moved to New York in 1950. He became a lifelong friend. “You know,” she later recalled him telling her, “they have very interesting ideas in New York that we don’t have.”

Following his suggestion, Setterfield tried New York, arriving with a scholarship from choreographer José Limón. Soon, she was studying with Cunningham and James Waring. It was in these circles that she met Gordon, an intellectually curious young New Yorker who was already performing for Waring.

Cunningham was not yet a celebrity. Still, just watching him teach class, Setterfield told The Guardian in 2019, she thought, “This is why I came to America!” His class, she said, “had an anatomical sense to it — it went into an amazing range of shapes and steps, as well as the most thrilling rhythmic combinations.” Cunningham, she recalled, said to her, “Don’t make everything so pretty,” an observation she found revelatory.

Waring’s work often seemed small-scale, but it opened many doors in its striking blurring of the distinctions between art and life, its cultivation of a form of theatricality sometimes labeled camp, and its study of nonvirtuoso forms of movement.

In the early 1960s, Setterfield and Gordon found themselves well aligned for the dance experimentalism that took off at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Dancers and choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown were among their most valued colleagues. In due course, Gordon and Setterfield moved into a loft in the same Lower Broadway building as Brown.

During these years, Setterfield often played nondance roles for visiting dance companies at the Metropolitan Opera House. Decades later, she would speak in awe of sharing the stage with Fonteyn in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Cunningham engaged Setterfield briefly in 1961, the year she married Gordon. On Aug. 5 of that year, she was one of nine highly individual dancers cast in the world premiere of Cunningham’s “Aeon,” with a score by John Cage and designs by Robert Rauschenberg, neither yet the artistic celebrity he would become.

“Aeon,” which Cage described as “epic in character,” was 45 minutes long. It began with a series of small explosions, and its sequences could be performed so as to overlap. Rauschenberg, in those days the Cunningham company’s stage manager as well as its chief designer, devised a machine that crossed the stage on a rope.

At the Judson church, Setterfield danced in works by Rainer, Gordon and others. Here, pedestrian movement was OK; improvisation was OK; minimalism was OK. And, although Rainer famously announced “No to theatricality,” it would have been truer to say that the Judson dance makers were continually reexploring theatricality and redefining the nature of theater.

Setterfield combined these activities with motherhood. She left the Cunningham troupe when she and Gordon had a son, Ain, in 1962, but she was brought back in 1965 and stayed until 1975, creating roles in 13 Cunningham works. The sets were designed by, among others, Johns, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella; the composers included Cage, Toshi Ichyanagi, Pauline Oliveros and David Tudor.

Gordon established the Pick Up Performance Company to make new dances in 1971. Three years later, he created “Chair” for Setterfield and himself, which introduced a long series of works in which she was his partner, his muse or his protagonist. Those works were often about the connections and paradoxes between art and life.

In 1982, the couple were the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker written by critic Arlene Croce. It was one of many signs that postmodern dance had graduated into the big leagues.

As the years passed, it pleased Gordon to find an evermore diverse array of roles for his wife.

In 1988, when he created “Mates” for Britain’s Rambert Dance Company, he gave her a role, thus linking her to the troupe’s founder, Marie Rambert, who had trained her more than 30 years before. Setterfield was artist Marcel Duchamp in Gordon’s “The Mysteries and What’s So Funny” (1991), the Old Man and the Old Woman in his adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs” (2004) and Bertolt Brecht in his “Uncivil Wars” (2006).

Setterfield also performed independently of Gordon, in acting as well as dancing roles. She had featured film roles in Brian De Palma’s “The Wedding Party” (1969) and Yvonne Rainer’s “Lives of Performers” (1972), and minor roles in two movies by Allen, “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995) and “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996).

On television, she appeared in “Beyond the Mainstream” (1980), an episode of the PBS series “Dance in America.” In 1987, she co-starred with Baryshnikov in “David Gordon’s Made in USA,” an installment of PBS’ “Great Performances.” And in 1992, she was a member of the White Oak Dance Project, a company founded by Baryshnikov.

From 1994 to 2013, Setterfield appeared with Paradigm, a collective led by her former Cunningham colleague Gus Solomons Jr.; in 2008, she performed in a work by a much younger Cunningham alumnus, Jonah Bokaer.

In 2009 and 2010, she performed in France and other countries, including the United States, with French choreographer Boris Charmatz in a Cunningham-derived production. (“Would Merce be amused?” she wrote in an email at the time. “I like to think so. Into the unknown, integrity ahoy!”)

When Gordon’s “Live Archiveography” was presented at The Kitchen in Manhattan in 2017, Setterfield appeared on center stage, as she did in Gordon’s 2018 revival of his 1972 work “The Matter” at MoMA.

When Setterfield was in her 80s, she played the title role in “Lear,” created (after William Shakespeare’s play) by Irish choreographer John Scott, for which she won a Herald Angel Award at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival. Among her other honors were several New York Dance and Performance Awards, also known as the Bessie.

Setterfield collaborated a number of times with her son, Ain Gordon, notably in the off-Broadway play “The Family Business” (1995), which also included her husband, and for which all three won an Obie Award.

Gordon died in January 2022, the morning after he and Setterfield celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. She is survived by their son; his husband, dancer and choreographer Wally Cardona (who performed with her at MoMA in “The Matter” revival); and two granddaughters.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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