Theater archives

O For a Muse of Fire


Confession of a Henry V junkie: Smitten in the eighth grade with Laurence Olivier’s film, Shakespeare, and Olivier himself, I saw the movie 10 times. I can still recite most of the speeches. The excitement I felt watching David Gordon’s stunning and provocative Dancing Henry V resonates with memories of that earlier crush.

Shakespeare’s Chorus bids the audience, “On your imaginary forces work.” Gordon’s witty, weary, sometimes angry narrator, Valda Setterfield—waving a hand over the piled-up props recycled from earlier Gordon works—reminds us that downtown choreographers are used to making do and getting audiences to use their imagination. And indeed, a rolling table serves as both Falstaff’s deathbed and a galloping steed. Gauzy striped fabric sheets become flags, sails, ceremonial carpets, and at one magic moment the ships on which people, still as statues, are pulled across a wooden ocean. The weapons at this Agincourt are poles handed out by production stage manager Ed Fitzgerald. The performers open folding chairs and set them down with a decisive, carefully aimed bang that expresses martial resolve as powerfully as any words. Some of the victims falling and hurtling in Jennifer Tipton’s suddenly fiery-dark lighting are dummies. Setterfield delivers one of her most despairing speeches—about lost sons, and leaders who shove their nations into war claiming that God is on “our” side—while holding a dummy in her arms. Olivier’s Henry, filmed during World War II, struck a patriotic chord in beleaguered Britain. Gordon’s text zeroes in on current parallels (including the leader as redeemed playboy heir). Setterfield reminds us tartly that back in 1415, kings rode into battle with their soldiers and knew what hell it was.

As always with Gordon, the tone is conversational and the dancing built primarily on walks—tiptoe marches, slow lunges, business-like striding—that create an oblique shifting flow. The eight marvelous performers pick up objects, and alter the striped drapes they wear over rugby shirts, without stopping. They weave around one another, building and dissolving arches and fences and embraces as they go. The French Dauphin’s mocking gift of balls sets off a toss-and-catch game that, though serene, suggests careful drill. Tadej Brdnik is now a foot soldier, now Henry. Tying on a pillow, Setterfield is still commenting on the plot as she sags into the dying Falstaff.

Voices from Olivier’s film (occasionally in out-of-sync duets with other recorded Henrys) weave in and out of William Walton’s rousing film score. Movement slides against text. When Setterfield and Karen Graham dance the charming scene in which the French princess attempts to learn English from her duenna (she’s expected to wed Henry if he wins), their gestures for “fingers” and “nails” are part of a dance language, not bits of pantomime, and they coast easily on the taped dialogue from the movie.

Dancing Henry V is Gordon’s first brush, as far as I know, with a literary narrative, and—querying the paradoxes that cling to the very notions of victory and defeat—he comes out victorious.

The two-week Altogether Different Festival opened with another kind of storyteller, John Kelly. But while Gordon’s dancers are always themselves, Kelly transforms himself, sometimes before our eyes, into artists who have intrigued him—often offbeat or endangered ones: Barbette, the cross-dressing American tightrope walker who charmed Jean Cocteau; Baptiste, the sad mime played by Jean-Louis Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis; Robert Schumann; Joni Mitchell; Egon Schiele; Dagmar Onassis; Orpheus. Entering the theater for his The Skin I’m In, we see projected portraits and thumbnail bios (what are Narcissus’s five favorite things? What does Saint Sebastian keep in his bedroom?). We meet and/or hear most of them alive and on film in this ingenious and moving crazy quilt of excerpts from Kelly’s works dating from 1984 to his latest. Kelly’s own persona—that of a gentle, enraptured naïf—collapses memorably into Schiele’s twisted depictions of bodies in his paintings (from the 1995 Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte) or the blinded Orpheus whose eyes are opened by a nightclub Hell.

Kelly doesn’t sing in Skin, although we hear his countertenor voice as we’re exiting the theater. In his premiere, Paradise, he desperately opens his mouth but no sound emerges, and he falls backward into the arms of a Pierrot who steps forward from a slow parade of figures that includes Harlequin and a hospital nurse (Kelly sustained a severe neck injury falling from a trapeze in 2002). There are few words in Skin‘s live action either; music powers not only the movement but the feelings beneath it. In an opening skit, a sunbathing buddy (David Zurak) turns on a radio. A crass young Kelly reaches to turn it off just as Maria Callas strikes a high note, and he experiences an epiphany. The movement images are pungent, including Christopher Williams’s uncannily limber distortions as Cerberus bounding and crawling through the Underworld scene from Find My Way Home (1996), and the stiff little dance Schiele performs arm in arm with his Alter Egons in Blutwurst to court his wife (Daryl Owens).

Kelly really is an altogether different theatrical creator-performer. His impersonations transcend camp or revue entertainment because of the respect, love, and scrupulous artistry he brings to them.