The first thing you hear when you press play on The Philadelphia Matter - 1972/2020, a curated presentation in this year’s Fringe, is the opening strains of Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” and it could be challenging at first to try to reconcile this instantly familiar big-band piece with what you’ve always been taught about modern and postmodern dance. They don’t usually exist in the same universe.
Song and dance man
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to find the connection. Gordon, born in the mid-1930s, grew up during the golden age of the Broadway musical. In a highly stylized, scripted voiceover, the choreographer and his wife, the renowned dancer Valda Setterfield, relay that, as a child, the young Gordon would go to the movies—many of them musicals—at least once a week. Because the overlap between big bands and musical comedy is not insignificant, when we very shortly thereafter see archival footage of a fortysomething, heavily bearded Gordon slowly and somewhat unmusically humming “In the Mood” while rehearsing the choreography for “Song and Dance” from the 1979 production of The Matter (Plus and Minus), things start to click.
“Talking and/or singing while you’re dancing is not postmodern,” Gordon explains in the voiceover that plays while the screen displays footage of Philadelphia dancers—some at home, some in parks, one standing at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge—replicating the choreography we just watched Gordon perform. “Yes, I do do it … but we didn’t invent it. It’s what happens…in 1940s movie musicals. A song and dance act is a performance in which a person or a group of people talk and sing and dance.” And when more and more Gordon’s virtual company of dancers fills the screen, this time emulating not just Gordon’s movement but his monotone hum, everything makes sense.
“Song and Dance” is just the first of three pieces from the original and revival productions of The Matter that make up The Philadelphia Matter - 1972/2020. It’s also a re-envisioning of Gordon’s original idea of a virtual dance company, which long predated the internet as we know it today. Forty years ago, Gordon’s idea of a virtual dance company was a pick-up company, he explains in the production, “put together for a limited number of rehearsal weeks and a limited number of performances.” It wasn’t that performances were delivered virtually, but rather that they were performed by a number of dancers who virtually make up a dance company.
“Virtual” has come to mean something different over the past three decades, and something different still in 2020, while our lives are more or less fully virtual. This time, Gordon’s virtual company exists on the screen as the result of so many ones and zeroes, mostly separate from each other (with the exception of those dancers who performed the second piece, “Close Up,” with partners). Working with local theater designer and video artist Jorge Cousineau, Gordon manages to assemble a company that’s greater than the sum of its parts, small boxes of talented dancers collaged together to make the virtual still feel somehow real.
The result is something that’s post-postmodern and yet familiar at the same time, the perfect performance for those of us looking for something we recognize in a world we do not.
Image Description: A collage of small rectangular photos that each have one dancer in them, all in different poses.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Matter - 1972/2020. A co-presentation of David Gordon and Christ Church Neighborhood House. Streaming online through October 4, 2020, part of the curated Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Visit here to stream the video for free.