To David Gordon, choreography has always been the C-word, something that others--perhaps better equipped and more captivated by mere dancing--do for a living. Not Gordon.
Others may grandly say that they create dances, but ever since he began his dance career in the early '60s, Gordon has slyly described what he does as "constructing pieces."
That is, until recently. For Gordon's latest construction, "United States," is a real dance, replete with glitzy show tunes and dreamy adagios. And for once, Gordon is reveling in his ability to combine the best elements of his cannily subversive dances of word and movement in a style that even he finds uncommonly expressive. Every bit the habitual skeptic, David Gordon, 52, seems finally to have accepted that he is a choreographer after all.
"United States" will have its Los Angeles premiere when Gordon's permanently-temporary Pick Up Company performs Friday and Saturday in Royce Hall, UCLA. As one might imagine from its title, the subject is the United States--but not as a state of mind or as a national identity, so much as a place, a finite geographical locus, the site of real people.
Each part of the piece is a carefully researched portrait of what the people who live in each place might think about where they live. In Los Angeles, the Pick Up Company will perform a "Minnesota" section, a "New York" section, and the world premiere of a "Western" section, each set off by short "New England" divertimenti danced to snippets of a Robert Frost interview.
For "New York," Gordon uses texts by young New Yorkers (including his grown-up son Ain) and different versions of Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on 10th Avenue." For "Minnesota," he reaches out to an essay by Carol Bly and to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17--the first movement played by the Minnesota Orchestra, the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The linkages are artificial--there because Gordon likes them there--and the sections are finally a kind of emotional composite of the places from the perspective of those living there.
"As a New Yorker," said Gordon, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side, "you might know how Northern California people are not terribly fond of Southern California people, and vice versa, but you probably don't know how Coloradans feel about New Mexicans. There's a different sense of turf out there. I don't think New Yorkers think about, say, Connecticut, in the same way although they may think about New Jersey a little bit because of the shopping malls there."
To Gordon, the idea that the 50 states are one interconnected entity seems to have come as a surprise, like suddenly seeing beyond the limits of the famous New Yorker cover that chauvinistically collapses the world beyond the Hudson River into a tiny corner of the map.
"I was amazed when I looked at a Dust Bowl story in a WPA manual and found out the dumb thing that everyone knows . . . that when there's a dust storm in New Mexico it moves and comes back to Colorado. Why didn't I think of that before?"
Even the unusual funding process used to put together "United States" seems to have suggested a greater sense of the connections that link different parts of this country to one another.
Twenty-seven sponsoring institutions in 17 states--prodded by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts--contributed money to the development of the project, serving not only as presenters but also as part of the research base for the content of the piece. No less than the Wall Street Journal hailed this process as a "model, an answer to the dilemma so many artists face financing and funding tours."
"United States" may have given Gordon a better economic foundation and a stronger sense of this country's interconnectedness, but it seems also to have reinforced his sense of dance's limits.
One of the pioneers of American post-modern dance dating back to the Judson Dance Theater in the early '60s, Gordon for years paired movement and language together in a way that suggested that dances could make meaning the way films do. As he plumbed deeper into questions of privacy and identity, he created definitive portraits of individuals and situations.
But then things began to change: Gordon's temporary Pick Up Company grew bigger and more permanent, sponsors and critics seemed to want more dancing and less talking, and Gordon himself seemed to grow bored with his previous direction.
"When I began to realize I had run out of things to say--I had said it all--I really began to wonder what it was to make dances," he says, "and I tried to learn something about music and about the speed of dancing."
With "United States," Gordon seems to be using dance as a means of communicating feelings or sensations \o7 through \f7 movement, regardless of their standing with words.