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Dance of life: David Gordon/Pick Up Performance Company.

Keeping It Real
By Mae G. Banner

David Gordon/Pick Up Performance Company in Private Lives of Dancers
Jacob’s Pillow, Doris Duke Studio, Aug. 23

OK, we know we must suspend our disbelief when we go to see a play. Then, along come playwrights like Pirandello and Brecht, who, by showing us actors playing actors, insist we suspend our suspension. Now, we’re colluding with the actors to perform a double shuffle. Real or not real? Or both?

Well, that’s the David Gordon/Pick Up Performance Company’s take on dance. I came out of the theater last Friday at Jacob’s Pillow elated. Gordon’s fully scripted dance-theater work, Private Lives of Dancers, displayed the magic in plain sight: props, lighting, language, and simple, but remarkably pure movement. Yet, it was still magic.

Gordon, a founding member of the pathbreaking Judson Dance Theatre, started the Pick Up group in 1971. His dancers tend to stick with him. In Private Lives, he shows us himself and his wife, Valda Setterfield, getting their home studio ready for a dance rehearsal. We hear their ordinary talk as we watch them put together a nine-panel screen of red doors with glass panes.

“How do you want your eggs?” “Are you going anywhere tonight?” “Maybe I’ll get fish for dinner. Or chicken.” And, then, tenderly, “Do you love me?”

Yes, he does. These partners in life and on the stage, now well into their last chapters, walk rhythmically in tandem, forward and back, changing direction at the same instant as if by ESP. She is lithe and elegant. He carries a paunch, yet moves with a light deliberateness. They step around the stage, not needing to touch, and you know theirs is an old and lasting love.

Under full houselights, the dance has begun. Dancers enter, one by one, in mismatched rehearsal clothes, and begin to warm up. As they stretch an arm or lift a leg, they, too, talk of daily matters. Tricia Brouk has conned her mother into buying her an expensive couch. Scott Cunningham’s wife was throwing up all night. Tadej Brdnik and Gayle Gibbons muse over pizza or sushi for lunch. Each repeats phrases in a self-absorbed way, like actors in a Chekhov play. And, of course, they repeat movement phrases all the while, weaving a double ply of verbal and kinetic poetry.

Karen Graham, tall and limber, mentions that she has a doctor’s appointment. She might be pregnant. The news passes from one dancer to the next in little duets of action and conversation, gathering implications as the dance gathers complexity. Will Jimmy marry her? Will she quit dancing? Should I learn her part?

The audience chuckles at this round-robin rumor making. At the same time, we’re getting to know these dancers as real people with real concerns. (Yes, it’s scripted, but, by now, I’m in full suspension of disbelief.) But, when a women dancer says to a male partner who has moved in too fast, “Why can’t I initiate?,” and he answers, “Sometimes, style is content,” I think, “Brecht’s in the wings.”

Private Lives layers meaning and movement. Two women dance on a diagonal, left shoulders opposing, and the stance becomes an insinuation. Four dancers gather in the center, fall back, then regather to lift one, then another. Their gentle resurgence is democracy.

Suddenly, the lights flash blue-green, like a power outage. That’s lighting designer Jennifer Tipton’s exclamation point to mark the change from rehearsal to the “real” dance. Cool blue stage lighting comes on. Gordon and Setterfield reverse the red doors to black. The dancers leave and re-enter with black leotards. Alan Johnson’s piano score swells into an orchestral piece, thanks to production techie Ed Fitzgerald, who’s been onstage from the start.

The dance is all meetings and partings, brief flights and off-balance leanings that plunge the dancers into the next step. Music and dance grow in an onrush of intensity—a beautiful dance made of the simplest actions. And, all the while, I’m thinking, “I know what’s on the dancers’ minds while they’re doing this wonderful work. I know what that glance really means.”

Gordon and Setterfield dance as godparents, moving mostly behind the fanned-out black doors, watching their children through the windows. Sometimes, Setterfield steps in among the dancers, but on her own path. Sometimes, Gordon traces a wide circle around them, in and out of synch with their growing speed.

At last, Graham slows down and begins a journey from stage right to left, opposite from her peers. The phone rings. The stage manager calls out the message. Real life shuts down the dance.

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