Like most artists of consequence, and like his own work, David Gordon is fascinatingly complex. There's David Gordon the sad-eyed clown, and Gordon the ironic manipulator of popular culture; there's Gordon the satirical dialectician of postmodernism, and Gordon the weaver of endlessly convoluting designs; Gordon the maverick, Gordon the master of colloquial wordplay, and Gordon the closet romantic, who rarely discloses feelings except under a mask of deadpan drollery.
At the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre last night, where David Gordon/Pick Up Co. appeared as the opening event of the American College Dance Festival Association's three-day Mid Atlantic Regional Festival, we saw all these sides of Gordon and more. In two new 40-minute works -- "A Plain Romance Explained" and "My Folks" -- Gordon reconfirmed what the dance world has long acknowledged, that he's got one of the most fecund and liberating imaginations at work in our era.
The Tawes performance marked the first visit by Gordon's troupe to this area since a memorable Smithsonian program in 1982. But Gordon himself was very much with us last December at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where American Ballet Theatre premiered his first work for a classical dance company, the startlingly offbeat "Field, Chair and Mountain," set to a piano concerto by the 19th-century English composer John Field. "A Plain Romance Explained" is rather like a more intimate sketch in preparation for that ballet; the music consists of four piano Nocturnes by Field, and the dancing involves much of the rapidly permuting partnering techniques that are one of the hallmarks of the ABT composition.
There are differences, though. "Romance" starts out on an older, more familiar Gordon note, with dancers talking as they move, describing what they're doing, and then eases into a newer facet of Gordon prompted by his attraction to Field's charmingly rambling salon music. Indeed, the crux of Gordon's idea appears to be a meshing of the older mode with the new, exploiting the contrast between the dreamy sentimentality of the music and the matter-of-factness of the dancers and the dancing, which utilizes such gestures as the wiping of noses. It's like having your sentiment and making fun of it too. The piece is wittily engrossing for much of the way -- the best is the lush first Nocturne, with its twisting torso motif -- but the vapidity of much of the music and the redundancy of the movement are drawbacks here, as they were to some extent in "Field, Chair and Mountain."
"My Folks" is a winner throughout. It's in a wholly different vein, though in a typical Gordon ploy, the twisting torso passage from "Romance" recurs here in a completely altered context and tone. The music is Klezmer music -- the instrumental folk music of Eastern European Jews of the last century. Maybe it's no accident that Gordon went to the same high school on the Lower East Side as Zero Mostel -- the music evokes the world of "Fiddler on the Roof," with its alternating dirges, lively horas and plaintive wails. Against this background, Gordon gives us stylized folk dances with all manner of postmodern twists. Gordon's love of props is abetted by the "visual designs" of artist Power Boothe -- bolts of striped cloth that serve, in the dancers' hands, wrapped around their bodies or slung under them like instant rickshaws, as decor, costumes and modes of conveyance.
This is Gordon at his most brilliantly inventive, fusing old and new in another sense -- the Old World of his parentage registered through his playfully sophisticated contemporary sensibility.