The word in the profession was that David Gordon -- the avant-garde prodigy commissioned by American Ballet Theatre to create a new work for the company's Kennedy Center visit starting Tuesday night -- ate three dance critics for breakfast each morning and detested interviews.
"Oh, no," he said, in a quick trip to Washington last weekend. "I'm a pussycat."
Well, maybe more like a good-natured grizzly bear, those big eyes peering at you from under black beetle-brows, with great thick shocks of shaggy black hair rounding head, nose and chin. Add a characteristic expression that's maybe a glowering grimace or a magnanimous smile but more likely some infernal combination of the two.
He comes by his reputation naturally. As one of the enfants terribles of the revolutionary performance modes that started out from New York's Judson Dance Theater in the early '60s, and one of contemporary dance's livest wires ever since, Gordon is a confessed agitator. A critic once said he was "looking for trouble." Gordon's comment was: "I was looking for trouble. I still am. I thought that one of the things about making art was looking for trouble."
Gordon's idea of trouble, however, isn't what you might expect from a vanguard radical. Far from being esoteric, Gordon's works strike one as a mad fusion of show business absurdities, tickling word and image riddles, everyday rituals turned into complex puzzle plays, visual chicanery and upside-down logic. Mostly they are about the ways people live and relate to each other, and what -- if indeed anything -- it all means.
Gordon's first work for ABT, and his first ballet altogether, premieres Thursday night at the Opera House. The dance, "Field, Chair and Mountain," will have three subsequent performances in the course of the company's three-week run, which also includes the company premiere of Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations" and the Washington premiere of ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel's "Amnon V'Tamar." Van Hamel and Clark Tippet will be the principals in all performances of the Gordon work.
For ABT, it's a bold move in the company's quest for challenging new material for its dancers and audiences. "Field, Chair and Mountain," set to John Field's Seventh Piano Concerto, has costumes and scenery by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, and what the program will describe as "construction by David Gordon."
The word "choreography," as applied to Gordon, isn't part of his lexicon -- it's one of his no-nos, along with the descriptive "postmodern."
"I don't really have anything against the term 'choreographer,' " Gordon explains. "It's just that when I started making work I kept being stopped by people, including critics, and especially dance critics, telling me, oh, that was very interesting, but it wasn't dance. Gordon's really fine, but he isn't a choreographer. It seemed silly and a losing battle to keep arguing over it, so I said, you're right, it isn't, and I'm not. I began to speak of work 'constructed' by me -- especially since it often included lots of material other than movement. It was essentially a response to these complaints.
"As for 'postmodern' and other such labels, I don't really care about them. I do what I do and it's up to others to call it what they want. I only object because these terms are limiting -- they prepare audiences to look for things that aren't actually germane to the kind of work I'm into."
The kind of work Gordon makes eludes classification -- it's so individual, it's not only outside the mainstream but all the fringe tributaries as well. It's impossible to pick out a "typical" opus, but "Random Breakfast," premiered in Washington in 1963, is indicative of the Gordon mind at work. It was a duet for Gordon and Valda Setterfield, his very elegant, very bright, very witty, ballet-trained wife and most frequent partner. Gordon has described the piece as "a lavish escapade that included at least a dozen costume changes, innumerable accessories, props, sound cues and complicated timing. Two of us were to do it in 30 minutes. It was the piece, I remember thinking, that would bring modern dance to an abrupt end."
The first part of the work was an elaborate striptease performed by Setterfield. The second section had Setterfield dancing to Vivaldi, while simultaneously Gordon "improvised a series of verbal directions explaining how to make your own successful modern dance with movement demonstrations of the techniques involved. I used the dance vocabularies of most of what I had seen going down at the Judson, as well as references to established techniques, film and theater. I conceived of it as a scathing dismissal of current values and methods. The audience thought it was very funny. People I did not attack in a given performance asked why they had been left out."
Actually, asking questions is at the heart of much of Gordon's work. He tells of a class he took with artist Ad Reinhardt when he was a fine arts student at Brooklyn College. "He once gave a test in class," says Gordon. "There were three questions -- the first was, what is art?; the second was, what is 'is'?; the third was, what is 'what'? I learned a lot." He learned to be the doubting Thomas of contemporary dance.
The doubts apply equally to himself and his work. "When I make a work for my own company David Gordon/Pick Up Co. , there comes a time when the momentum of moving ahead is over, when intuition and arrogance are gone, and examination and self-doubt set in. I find myself standing back and asking, have I made anything here? I have no idea what I've made -- I'll watch it with trepidation, as if it was the work of a stranger. The question never gets answered -- it just disappears after a while."
His trepidations are magnified in the case of "Field, Chair and Mountain," because his experience with ballet has been so limited. Once he received the ABT commission, early this year, he told himself, "Okay, you've just agreed to make a half-hour ballet. You don't know how to make a ballet, much less a half-hour ballet. There won't be any talking involved -- it wouldn't work in the kind of spaces ABT performs in -- so you're going to have to make something that actually looks like dance." The realization, Gordon says, brought on "sheer terror."
Fortunately, Gordon's self-questionings turn into grist for his creative mill. His most recent large-scale work for his own company was a piece called "Framework," premiered last spring at New York's Dance Theater Workshop. While members of the company yakked with each other or by themselves about their loves, hates, frustrations and desires (material seemingly drawn from their own lives but actually invented by Gordon), they also executed beautiful series of intricate movements in, through and around wooden frames designed by artist Power Boothe. The whole thing was a catechism of questions: What is a frame? What are borders? What's inside and what's out? Where does private life stop and work life begin? Where are the perimeters of past, present, future?
It was this work that Mikhail Baryshnikov, artistic director of ABT, came to see at DTW, and led to Gordon's commission, though a number of people at the company were also involved in recruiting him. Baryshnikov gave him complete freedom, Gordon says; the one thing requested was that there be some kind of set, because Baryshnikov had been so impressed with Boothe's visual devices. "At the time, I had no idea what I was going to do," Gordon says. "All I knew was that if I was going to make something for a ballet company, I wouldn't want it to seem like a 'downtown' piece transplanted on ballet dancers, in such a way that they could reject it like a kidney. I had to solve the problem of making the work look like mine, and also making it look like theirs."
Gordon chose the John Field Concerto partly because he was intrigued with its untraditional form -- two movements instead of the usual three, the first of which includes one of Field's own Nocturnes (he was the 19th-century inventor of the genre). Gordon's use of music is as unconventional as his movement strategies, often involving fragments of pieces in different idioms, sometimes played simultaneously. "When, seven or eight years ago, I finally decided to try to deal with music more systematically," he says, "I was determined not to be its victim. I see so many dances these days where you can tell just when the movement inspiration ran dry, and the choreographer must have been saying to himself, 'Now I've got to keep going until the bloody music ends.' "
Besides the ABT premiere, Gordon has also created a work for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and next month he goes abroad to make a piece for the Paris Opera's experimental dance group. Among his company's tour dates is a performance at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre that will open the Mid-Atlantic regional event in the 1985 American College Dance Festival, on March 20; two new Gordon works will be featured. Gordon and the Pick Up Co., moreover, will be presented at New York's Joyce Theater next May in a series that will also include the Merce Cunningham company and Pilobolus.
Among Gordon's chronic fears has been unearned popularity -- he's expressed worries that if he pleases mass audiences, it may mean he's becoming too accessible, compromising himself, pandering. Was he now worried that an ABT "success" might spoil David Gordon? "The fact is," he says, "my own company has about six tour dates lined up so far for this year. I'll worry about success when it comes."