‘I have played men before but King Lear is a new departure’

Valda Setterfield, now 79, is enjoying tackling one of the stage’s meatiest characters in choreographer John Scott’s dance based on Shakespeare’s play

Whitney Hunter, Valda Setterfield and Ryan O’Neill in rehearsals for Lear Project. Photograph: Alex Escalente

Whitney Hunter, Valda Setterfield and Ryan O’Neill in rehearsals for Lear Project. Photograph: Alex Escalente

Thu, Aug 7, 2014, 01:00

At 79, Valda Setterfield still has plenty of performance ambitions. Until recently, playing King Lear wasn’t one of them, but it’s a role she is ready to embody in The Lear Project, a new work by the Irish choreographer John Scott, commissioned by Kilkenny Arts Festival.

“I have played men before,” she says. “Remarkable men, like Bertolt Brecht and Marcel Duchamp, so that part is not unfamiliar. But playing King Lear certainly is a new departure.”

Her English accent has scarcely been diluted by more than 50 years spent in New York’s dance and theatre scene. In that time, she has performed with the most influential figures in modern and postmodern dance – Merce Cunningham, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov – and picked up the most prestigious awards in the dance world along the way. Although conversation is naturally drawn to these collaborations, particularly with Cunningham and Setterfield’s husband, David Gordon, she regularly name-checks her formative years in England.

It was while training in ballet with Marie Rambert, and mime with Tamara Karsavina, that she first learned male roles.

“Rambert made us learn all of the roles. Everything. So if you were in Giselle, you also learned Albrecht and Hilarion’s dances. Rambert picked this up from Nijinsky or Diaghilev, depending on which book you read, because they believed that if you had your own company and were going to mount a ballet, then you had to know every detail of the ballet.”


Pantomime and other oddities

Setterfield also performed with pantomime groups, “where you could play anything, like a rat in a kitchen scene”. This stage experience stood to her when she travelled to the United States and began working with Cunningham.

“I wasn’t the strongest technical dancer in the company. I wasn’t brought up in a university. My training had been in performance doing Giselle, revue, pantomime and a lot of strange things, so I knew things the others didn’t know. Merce and I really connected at that theatrical level.”

It is something she shares with John Scott: his fibrous artistic roots run deep in New York. He has also collaborated with many key figures in the postmodern dance movement and is naturally drawn to the simple – but not simplistic – aesthetic that values honesty over artifice. Most of his back catalogue contains choreography that is less concerned with wowing an audience with theatrical trickery than with prioritising honesty of expression in bodies that don’t conform to the accepted ideal. He has worked with mixed casts that included retired performers, torture survivors and dancers with a wide range of experiences.

Scott wanted to create The Lear Project in response to the death of his father, Leslie Scott, who was a lighting designer at the Abbey Theatre.

He was drawn to Shakespeare’s play, not by the depiction of kingship and power struggles, but the unravelling of a universe: King Lear reflected the same struggle to hold things together that he saw in his ailing father.

“It is a letter to Leslie, but also a meditation on loss of memory and physical failings,” says Scott. He felt Setterfield would be ideal for the role of Lear, so he called in favours from friends of friends to set up lunch with her in New York.

“I knew of John’s work, but had never seen his choreography,” she says. “We talked quite a bit about the project, and I was immediately interested because it was something that I had never done before. It was also at a time when many of my friends’ parents had died or were dying. All around me were transitions in lives that were interesting, painful, joyful and inevitable. I thought that it would be interesting to research that together.”

Like Scott, Setterfield values honesty of expression onstage, something that was ingrained while working with Cunningham. “Merce really taught me how to let go of anything that isn’t needed. There should never be any decoration. I am still honest onstage and that counts for a lot.”


Loss of memory

During early discussions, Setterfield joked with Scott that she couldn’t remember lines as well as she used to, but she did suffer serious amnesia after her car was hit by a train in 1974. It’s an experience she has delved back into while working on The Lear Project.

“I didn’t really notice it until I started recovering. I would suddenly realise that I didn’t know how to get home, or where I was going.” At the time she was working with Cunningham, and she noticed that she couldn’t remember movement like before. “I was always quick at picking up sequences, but I was struggling. I was worried, and when I eventually mentioned it to him, he said, ‘I know, but it’s getting better’. This was an incredible relief, that I was talking about it to someone who knew me so well. Not a doctor who saw me as a patient rather than a person.”

Cunningham had seen her ability to concentrate steadily improve – she zoned out less frequently – and suggested that they treat the amnesia in the same way they would a physical injury. So they worked and rested her memory, building up strength. He also stood beside her during the company’s daily dance class, whispering upcoming sequences so that she could keep up. At the same time, her husband David Gordon made a piece for her called Chairs, which involved stepping on, falling off and sliding through a stage full of chairs.

“He deliberately created a piece completely different from anything that I had done before so that I’d have nothing to compare it to,” she says. “It was a way of building my physical confidence and improving my memory.”

Scott is experiencing a similar kind of artistic intimacy as he creates The Lear Project. Being based in New York for the project means that he and the fellow cast members can concentrate on the work without domestic distractions. In addition to Setterfield and New York-based dancer Whitney Hunter, Scott is joined by past collaborators in dancers Kévin Coquelard and Ryan O’Neill, and designer Eric Würtz. This has helped to create a family-like atmosphere.

“There have been discussions about parents, and the deterioration and loss of people close to us,” says Scott. “At times the process has been emotional for all of us.” Nevertheless, the familiarity hasn’t caused a leadening of creativity. “I’m working the same way, but I really feel like I’m going to a new place with this work,” he says. Setterfield is central to this.

“She really becomes Lear. Her overall performance is utterly believable, with an almost primal honesty. Every moment she’s in the studio, I’m not sure where Valda ends and Lear begins.”

Setterfield is enjoying tackling the role of King Lear. “I’ve had an astonishing range of experiences, for which I’m ever grateful, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy all of them at the time. My aim at this point is to only do things that interest me.”

The Lear Project is at the Watergate Theatre August 15-17. kilkennyarts.ie

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