Live review | Pick Up Performance Co(s): Dancing Henry Five
On October 14, TOC Theater contributor Zac Thompson and TOC Dance editor Zachary Whittenburg met at thefor the penultimate Chicago performance of Dancing Henry Five. Originally designed, directed and written in 2004 by David Gordon, the “pre-emptive (post-modern) strike & spin after William Shakespeare’s Henry V” condenses the play’s action into approximately one hour and is narrated by Valda Setterfield, a veteran dancer-actor whose credits include Ballet Rambert, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. Joining the cast for its current U.S. tour is Robert La Fosse, formerly a star dancer with both American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet.
Set to selections from William Walton’s swooning score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of the play, along with other music sources and audio clips from the movie, the work is of Spartan design. Stuffed effigies, flag-like swatches of fabric and well-worn, scrappy costumes—all striped—plus ladders, portable walls and folding chairs, serve multiple purposes on a bare stage. Many of these elements are recycled, built and first used for other dance and theater productions. Lighting for Dancing Henry Five is by blue-chip designer Jennifer Tipton.
Zac and Zac compared notes after the performance and then went to their respective homes to sleep. The next morning, they logged into Google Chat and had the following conversation.
Zac Whittenburg: Alright, are you ready to talk about Dancing Henry Five?
Zac Thompson: I am ready for hot, Zac-on-Zac action.
So, one thing that’s really stuck with me overnight is the sequence, toward the end, where Valda Setterfield retrospectively narrates England’s war with France. She says “we are told” and “God on our side” a number of times each. One phrase is about our dependence on those who provide news—or withhold it—from the front lines, and the other reinforces how even ostensibly political wars can become crusades. In the repetition of these two things, she’s able to cut through a lot of the po-mo jokery of what’s come before.
Her choral passages were really integral to what I think the message of the show was. Setterfield sort of counterbalances the gung-ho, imperialistic action of the play, brings a much-needed dose of skepticism to it.
As do the dancers, with their casual, not-very-physically-committed, “almost-dancing.”
Yeah—there’s a lot more walking around than I expected from a dance piece.
They’re in their bodies in a way opposite to how a soldier must be in his or hers. Kind of “checked out.”
I’m interested to hear what makes Dancing Henry Five postmodern.
Well, yes: Technically, I suppose, it’s past even that. Setterfield was herself part of the first round, at Judson Church and with Merce Cunningham’s company.
I guess it’s postmodern in its deconstruction of the play?
…via the film.
Oh, right. Differing sources, ironic distancing, all of that.
Which brings us to the ironic distancing of leadership today.
Right. Setterfield draws our attention to how, in the Middle Ages, kings went off with their troops to war. Nowadays, rulers stay behind in their palaces, blithely sending young people off to die, or however she puts it.
Maybe not blithely.
That was one of your favorite sequences in the show, right? When they “cross the English Channel” by standing on these striped sheets, and get dragged slowly across the stage? It’s nice how Gordon, right after drawing this distinction between leaders today versus leaders then, underlines it so poetically.
Yes—it’s a great moment. These stoic figures slowly moving across the floor. I also thought that there was an interesting tension between the heroic bearing of the dancer who played Henry—Robert La Fosse—and what you called the “po-mo jokery.” La Fosse didn’t ever do much joking around, with his movement or in his posture. He was more in the mold of traditional Henrys, while all that other dancing, along with the narration, calls into question the nobility of Henry’s mission and of war.
True. I wondered at times whether that was a directorial choice or more the result of La Fosse coming from a more classical background, as a former ballet star.
Oh, I hope it was a directorial choice, because it made the show much more interesting.
It put a fruitful tension right at the center of the piece. We see all of this stuff that pokes fun at the idea of “missions from God” and “noble wars,” but then the king himself is played more traditionally, as a chivalric hero. I thought it kept the show from being a purely skeptical enterprise.
Right. On the one hand, it’s this wry joking around, but it raises some heavy questions, too, in sly ways.
I think that, partially, that’s a result of when it was first performed, in 2004. Many of us had had quite enough of leaders, free of doubt, leading occupations.
Boy am I glad that’s over.
A distant memory.
Did you think that the costumes and palette of the whole thing, which Gordon chose as well, all faded colors and rugby stripes, was meant to highlight the “gameness” of war?
Maybe. It certainly gave it a scrappy look.
There’s a gamelike element to any dance-theater adaptation, I think. In feeding characters and a narrative into a process which then spits out some abstract movement and gestures, and bits of text. Anyway. You were saying something last night about the line, “There’s no one more moral than a born-again moralist.” …Hey, where’d ya go?
Google Chat logged me off. Where were we?
You were saying something last night about the line, “There’s no one more moral than a born-again moralist.”
I believe we were calling the dancers “gamey.”
Just their mouthfeel.
Ha! They’re “toothsome.” No, I did say something about that line, it’s true.
Say it again.
Well, in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, the plays that precede Shakespeare’s Henry V, Prince Hal is kind of a party boy but, then, he reforms and renounces his delightful bad influence, Falstaff. But in Henry V, we’re hardly given any sign that, once upon a time, he wasn’t Mr. Perfect. Shakespeare never calls his reformation into question in Henry V and, furthermore, kills off Falstaff at the top of the show, just in case. However, this show, Dancing Henry Five, does mention Henry’s change and, in fact, undermines it with lines like that one.
Ah. Do you think Gordon’s being tricky? Is it a way to bring up the issue of revisionist history within the constraints of the piece? Because that was a hot topic back in 2004, too: revisionist history.
Definitely. I think it means to continually call into question the play’s presentation of war as a noble undertaking.
“Saving face for the public spin / Is a classic government shenanigan,” says Setterfield. And in the show, after that line is delivered, Henry (La Fosse) and Katherine (Karen Graham) dance a courtship duet—which is actually a trio, because Setterfield’s chorus/narrator figure is all up in the mix.
Yeah, she’s like their go-between. Or pander. I definitely think that this piece tries to reinsert some doubt and ambiguity, to add those things to Shakespeare’s patriotic depiction of the war.
That’s right: You said yesterday that Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most patriotic plays, when it comes to its portrayal of combat, right?
It’s the rare example of a Shakespeare play in which the hero doesn’t really have to struggle against anything. All of his struggles take place in the Henry IV plays.
Bush didn’t have much to struggle against, either, going into Iraq.
Nor did he ever seem to show the slightest doubt, or ever question his actions’ motives. He always seemed completely sure of what he was doing, as does Harry. The difference, however, is that Shakespeare replaces human drama with grand, national epic.
How do you mean?
I mean that, since there’s not all that much going on inside of this character, Shakespeare seems to have resolved to celebrate England as a whole, and its myths of itself. One of the ways that Shakespeare does this, I think, is in the way he’s always going on about how big the story is, and how it can’t be contained within the stage.
As Americans, we’re certainly in a moment of struggling with the myths of America. So, what are you taking away from Dancing Henry Five?
Well, what I thought was most effective about the show was the way that it manages to convey so large a subject, using such simple means. The prologue says, “Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?” And yeah, I think it can.
With just seven dancers, some folding chairs, and a rolling ladder, somehow you come up with the Battle of Agincourt.
I thought you said, last night, that that was one of the show’s less-successful scenes.
How dare you call my inconsistencies into question! This interview is over.