DRAFF editor Rachel spoke to New York postmodern dance legend Valda Setterfield (82), ahead of her appearance in Irish Modern Dance Theatre's Lear in Dublin.
R: You lived through the heady artistic times of 1960s downtown New York, when a lot of new forms were emerging in the art world. You worked extensively with the influential modern choreographer Merce Cunningham, who worked closely with seminal composer John Cage. How did you end up there, having spent the early part of your life in England?
V: It was because of a friend’s suggestion really. I moved to New York in 1958, when I was in my early 20s. So I’ve actually lived there longer than in the UK, but I’m English. I feel we are what we are born. I started in dance as a little child, and then the war came and I went away to various schools that were supposedly safer. We lived near the sea and the possibility of invasion was tremendous. So my dancing training was interrupted by the war. I did a bit of everything – ballet, tap, singing.
R: And your parents, were they artistic?
V: My father took me to see a lot of English theatre, but we didn’t go to the movies so much. During the war, when I went to a couple of convents for school, the nuns did not like us to go to the movies. We were allowed to see Scott of the Antarctic, but that was all. I had some dancing training after the war - I studied with Marie Rambert, who was a wonderful woman and gave you all she had. She worked with Nijinksy a lot and Diaghilev, so it was amazing to study with her. But I was this peculiar misfit who was rather tall, not being really a corps de ballet person, too particular or something, and not really having the technique for a soloist. An English friend who was living in America told me that there was a lot of modern dancing over there and he thought I’d find it very interesting and they might find me very interesting, so why didn’t I come? I thought ‘Why not?’ I saved a bit of money, and I went to New York and I looked around. And my dear good friend gave me no advice at all, except checking I had enough to eat and somewhere to stay. I tried many things and I wasn’t sure any of them were for me at all, until I met Merce Cunningham, or met his class. And then I thought ‘This is exactly where I belong.’ I called my friend and said ‘I’ve made a decision - this is what I want to do.’ And essentially it led me into a world in which I’ve remained ever since, which is somewhat interested in new forms, other ways, while not negating the need and the value of the old ways.
R: I think you’re in a particularly incredible position – of having worked in that field since the beginning and seeing the various phases of its development, and to be still working in it now. What was it about Cunningham that you felt so at home with?
V: It was about rhythm. It was about the fact that there wasn’t a very particular sensibility about alignment, things were not thrown at you, you weren’t analysed as a technical being, you know ‘Spend four counts on half toe doing something, get your leg up to your ear, turn around five times and fall down.’ Phrases were built on amazingly complex and enticing and thrilling rhythms and I found I was doing things which, if they’d been analysed technically, I don’t think I would have done. But I was able to do things because they were rhythmically exciting. I’d always been considered a musical dancer. And people back home in England would say ‘How are you managing? They don’t use music!’ But they didn’t need to because the rhythm was inherent in the dancing – and I got that immediately. Plus I think, with Merce, there was a kind of theatrical sensibility that he understood I understood.
One of the first things I ever did was an understudy role because somebody was injured and Carolyn [Brown] kept saying to him ‘Why don’t you help her?’ And he said ‘I’m waiting to see what she does with the role.’ And one evening before we went on in some town, in Illinois somewhere, he said to me ‘My dear, this is an entry worthy of Edith Evans – take it!’ And I thought, this is fantastic, he knows who I am, he knows exactly what I would understand. He didn’t say ‘Make sure your balance is right or the leg is there.’ Just that remark. And that was like coming home.
<< people back home in England would say ‘How are you managing? They don’t use music!’ But they didn’t need to because the rhythm was inherent in the dancing >>
R: You must have seen so much groundbreaking work happening at that time in New York, in dance and musically, and otherwise.
V: I did go to the famous Bob [Robert Ellis] Dunn class, which was based on certain [John] Cage theories, which happened at Merce’s studio. But the thing was it was not possible to see everything. Partly because one didn’t have time, as we all had to earn money in other ways. But also because we were very faithful to our cores, we were like people who embrace a certain religion – and it wasn’t that we didn’t want to know, it was that we couldn’t do more than we did. It was going on around us all the time though, musically, art-wise, in film, all those things.
R: One final question – you’ve worked with your body throughout your entire career and you’re still dancing, at the age of 82. I imagine there are certain things you can’t do while performing now that you once could, in terms of flexibility and strength. But the body is still the thing. What is it, do you think, that’s important, that’s impactful in having the body on stage?
V: I think the most important thing is to be so fully present in the moment that the audience immediately responds - they understand that, they know it. I don’t worry about the aging thing. I did once say to Merce ‘I never had speed, so I don’t worry about losing it.’ And he laughed a little ironically at that, because he had amazing speed. I never cheated back then about the things I didn’t know how to do or couldn’t do. Whatever I did, I did fully and honestly. I think that’s the most that one can do. Live the fullest, have the best time you can, while you’ve got it.
See Valda perform the role of Lear in John Scott's Lear, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, October 22nd - 24th 2016. [irishmoderndancetheatre.com]