Choreographer gives Shakespeare unique spin

On Friday, the University at Albany Performing Arts Center brings to its stage Shakespeare as you ha

On Friday, the University at Albany Performing Arts Center brings to its stage Shakespeare as you have never seen it before.

“Dancing Henry Five” by the Pick Up Performance Co(s) is directed, choreographed and designed by David Gordon, winner of the Obie and Bessie awards. The dance/theater work, originally commissioned by Danspace Project in 2004, tells the story of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” with a unique combination of dance, theater, narration and music.

Gordon got the idea for the project several years ago when he was performing in London, and spotted a display of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in a bookstore.

“I got the idea that this might be interesting because this is a play about war and economics, and guess what is happening in all our lives right now,” he said. He bought books, recordings and musical scores and brought them all home to let the creative process begin.

He started by copying a script out of a book because he wanted “to see what it feels like to write those works, see those words, see how those words might work.” He listened to different versions of the soundtrack of the 1944 movie “Henry V,” and noticed that, as played by three different pianists, the score came out at different lengths. The same was true for different readings of the play. “That all became really musical for me,” Gordon said.

‘Dancing Henry Five’

WHERE: The University at Albany Performing Arts Center’s Main Theatre

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: $20; $15 for seniors and UAlbany faculty/staff; $10 for students

MORE INFO: 442-3997,

Personal background

What audiences will see on stage in this adaptation has been influenced in part by Gordon’s background. He found himself on stage by accident after walking a friend to her modern dance club in the 1950s. Guys were hard to find, and next thing he knew, he had been cast in a dance.

That led to an invitation to dance with James Waring’s company in the late 1960s, followed by stints in the Judson Dance Theater, Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily and, in the ’70s, Grand Union, an improvisational performing group. During his time with Grand Union, he started working with a group of dancers that later prompted him to form his Pick Up Performance Co(s) in 1971.

“What happens for me is that I can’t undo the history of what I’ve done, so it’s all there with me,” he said.

“But on the other hand, I try very hard when I start a new project not to simply reproduce a previous project but go in a new direction and not know what I’m doing — to attempt to do something I don’t know how to do.”

Even with a clear story line, as in the case of “Henry V,” he didn’t start with the end in mind. “I try not to know in advance what it is I’m aiming for so I don’t ignore all the things I’m finding along the way,” he said.

“Dancing Henry Five” is set to the music of William Walton, a score that Laurence Olivier commissioned for the 1944 film. The dancers also perform to speeches from the play, read by Olivier and Christopher Plummer, that relay the story of Henry V as he ascends to Britain’s throne and goes on to defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt.

Friday’s performers include Valda Setterfield, Gordon’s wife of 50 years, who plays “a newly invented Shakespearean chorus called the Gordon Chorus” as well as the lady in waiting; Karen Graham, an 18-year veteran of the company who dances the role of Princess Catherine of France; and former American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert La Fosse in the title role.

In the hourlong performance, the company will use portable items, including a chair, poles and lengths of fabric, to tell the story Henry V’s conquest of France.

“It’s theater and dance and it has many odd stage objects and props, and people dance with them, and it attempts to make its way through the story, including the battles and things that are in the play,” Gordon said.

Political undertones

While the work is designed to be entertaining, there are political undertones, which makes it decidedly different from his previous works. “For a very, very long time, I said, very cavalierly, ‘I am not a political artist,’ ” he said.

“At the time that this work starts to be made, things are happening in America, and we are initiating wars, and we have a deficit, and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about how I cannot be political. The politics of ‘Henry V’ is related to the world that I’m living in. The art I make isn’t made in a vacuum. It’s made in a world we all inhabit, and it refers to that world.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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