Who but David Gordon would retool Shakespeare’s “Henry V” as a dance?
You have to hand it to the director, choreographer and superb storyteller, as he not only conquered a Shakespeare drama that is lesser known but is also epic. The masterful Gordon, with his deft combination of film music, narrative dancing, recorded text and imaginative props, managed to abbreviate the four-hour coming-of-age story that included the historic, and miraculous, Battle of Agincourt into the one-hour version, “Dancing Henry Five.”
Gordon’s Pick Up Company performed it with aplomb and good humor Friday night at the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany.
As in all Gordon works, his incomparable muse Valda Setterfield led the way for the audience. Solely, she acted as Shakespeare’s chorus, guiding patrons through Henry’s decision to win France and the heart of its princess, Catherine. And like the chorus, she asked the audience to use its imagination — to consider the fields of France on the barren stage.
Yet Gordon’s stage was hardly fallow. In the opening scene, as Setterfield announced her role, the other seven players cleared the boards of ladders, chairs, poles, soft dummies, doors and yards of fabric. They pushed it to the wings, which were revealed as the side curtains were removed, lending a sense of being transported to the bard’s own Globe.
Setterfield stepped upstage to casually tell the story of the young Henry, or Hal. As a youth, he caroused with the portly knight Falstaff. But when Henry IV died, Henry V, played by ballet and Broadway’s Robert LaFosse, turned his back on his old friend and became serious about the throne.
LaFosse, known locally for all the years he performed as a principal with New York City Ballet, fit the role beautifully. More than a decade as a ballet prince has groomed him to act a king. And he did.
His erect stance and long strides matched the written text from the play as voiced by Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer. And the atmospheric and often sweeping music by William Walton, who scored the 1940s film adaptation of “Henry V,” served well the scenes of a sea journey and foreign war.
The dancers, however, looked like ragamuffins. Dressed in loose-fitting, striped T-shirts, knee socks and dark shorts, they appeared like disheveled English schoolboys. They added layers of tunics for their sail across the Channel, serenely done by pulling the dancers along a cloth.
Equally effective was the staging of the grand battle. As they climbed over and jumped off folding chairs, they appeared to be hiking through hills and valleys to arrive at their fated destination. The war ensued with each dancer pounding the floor with a wooden pole, creating the beat of a military march. As the assault took place, those poles were brandished as weapons and then waved as banners of victory.
While much of the details of Henry’s heroic tale were omitted, there was enough in “Dancing Henry Five” to keep the mind alert and heart delighted. Besides, aside from a purist, who today has four hours for “Henry V”? Shakespeare himself would likely have been intrigued by this fanciful reduction.