Valda Setterfield

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Valda Setterfield
Born(1934-09-17)September 17, 1934
Margate, Kent, England
DiedApril 9, 2023(2023-04-09) (aged 88)
Occupation(s)Dancer, actress
Years active1958–2023
Spouse(s)David Gordon
(January 28, 1961 - January 29, 2022, his death)[1]
ChildrenAin Gordon

Valda Setterfield (September 17, 1934 – April 9, 2023) was a British-born American postmodern dancer and actress. She was noted for her work as a soloist with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and for her performances in works by her husband, postmodern choreographer and director David Gordon.[2] She was described as his muse,[3] and together they were called "The Barrymores of post-modern dance."[2] Their son, playwright, theatrical director and actor Ain Gordon, has worked with Setterfield on a number of projects as well.

Life and career[edit]

Setterfield was born in Margate, Kent, in 1934, and grew up in Birchington-on-Sea.[4] She trained in ballet with Dame Marie Rambert and mime with Tamara Karsavina, and performed in English pantomime. She also performed in an Italian revue.[5][6] In 1958, on the promise of a scholarship to study with José Limón,[6] she came to New York City,[6] following her good friend David Vaughan.[7] While taking classes with choreographer James Waring, she met her husband-to-be, David Gordon. They were married from 1961 until his death in 2022, and had a son, Ain.[4][8]

Setterfield appeared with the improvisational dance company The Grand Union[6] and in the works of Yvonne Rainer, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman and JoAnne Akalaitis. She performed with David Gordon – whom she first met when they were both in the company of choreographer James Waring – at The Living Theatre and Judson Dance Theater, and is a founding member of Pick Up Performance Co(s). She was featured artist on the WNET/PBS Dance documentary America’s Beyond The Mainstream and in 1987 costarred with Mikhail Baryshnikov in David Gordon's Made in USA for WNET/PBS Great Performances. In 1988, she returned to Rambert as guest artist, performing in a Gordon’s Mates.[citation needed]

Setterfield played Marcel Duchamp in the Bessie- and Obie Award-winning The Mysteries & What’s So Funny? (1990)[9] and toured Europe and Japan with the White Oak Dance Project in 1992. She has acted in the work of her son, playwright Ain Gordon, at Soho Rep and Dance Theater Workshop and played herself in his Art, Life & Show Biz at PS 122 and elsewhere.[10] She danced in Gus Solomons Jr.'s A Thin Frost in 1994.

In film, Setterfield has appeared in the work of Yvonne Rainer and Brian De Palma,[6] and performed the choreography of Graciela Daniele in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You.[citation needed]

On the afternoon of September 10, 2001, Setterfield was rehearsing for a performance that was due to take place within a few weeks on a specially constructed stage in the Austin J. Tobin Plaza of the World Trade Center complex next to World Trade Center 1. The rehearsal was cut short half way through due to the rain. The stage was destroyed the next day in the September 11th attacks. She later said in an interview about the attacks "My father was a golfer and he taught me to recognise the sound of a golf ball hitting its target, when I heard that sound I thought that something has hit its target". She was staying a few blocks away from the World Trade Center and saw the impact of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 and the subsequent collapse of the towers.

In 2003, she danced at the 25th anniversary celebration of British Dance Umbrella, and in 2004/5 she performed in Dancing Henry Five at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, Danspace in New York City, the ODC Theatre in San Francisco, and other venues. She played The Old Woman in Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs at London’s Barbican Theater, On the Boards in Seattle, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.[11]

Setterfield played the role of Bertolt Brecht in Gordon’s Uncivil Wars, which is based on Brechts's Roundheads and Pointheads.[12]

Setterfield appeared in Jonah Bokaer's Player & Prayer (2008), with Carmen De Lavallade and Gus Solomons Jr., Anchises (2010) and Occupant (2013).

Setterfield died from pneumonia in Manhattan on April 9, 2023, at the age of 88.[4]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 1984 Setterfield received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie), and in 1995 she, David Gordon and Ain Gordon received an Obie Award for their performances in The Family Business at Dance Theatre Workshop and New York Theatre Workshop. She received a second Bessie in 2006 for outstanding achievement.

In August 2017, Setterfield was the sole recipient of the "Fringe Angel" award for that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which she received for her performance in the title role of Lear, created by Irish choreographer John Scott, based on Shakespeare's King Lear.[13]

In September 2019, Setterfield was the recipient of a Dance Magazine Award with David Gordon. The award noted that they "are renowned for the poignant humor of their work together – his uncanny sense of irony has found the ideal vehicle in her straitlaced, British facade."[14]



  1. ^ "'60s ARCHIVEOGRAPHY - Part 1" Archiveography website
  2. ^ a b Perron, Wendy (February 2, 2022) "Remembering David Gordon (1936–2022)" Dance Magazine
  3. ^ Friedman, Lisa (August 1986) "David Gordon: A Cult Choreographer Takes Center Stage". Dial
  4. ^ a b c Macaulay, Alistair (April 21, 2023). "Valda Setterfield Dies at 88; a Star in the Postmodern Dance Firmament". The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2023.
  5. ^ Smith, Amanda (February 1981)"David Gordon: Keeping the Options Open" Dance Magazine
  6. ^ a b c d e Croce, Arlene (November 29, 1982) "Profiles: Making Work" The New Yorker
  7. ^ Robertson, Allen (Autumn 1985) "Valda Setterfield - The early years" Dance Theatre Journal.
  8. ^ "'60s ARCHIVEOGRAPHY - Part 1" Archiveography website
  9. ^ Gussow, Mel (December 18, 1991) "Review/Theater; A Flamboyant Tribute to Duchamp's World" The New York Times; accessed March 10, 2022.
  10. ^ "Art, Life & Show-Biz: A Non-Fiction Play", Accessed March 10, 2022.
  11. ^ Isherwood, Charles (December 3, 2004). "A Couple Plays a Couple". The New York Times. Retrieved July 14, 2010.
  12. ^ LeFevre, Camille. (March 11, 2009) "'Uncivil Wars': Bush era prompted David Gordon to revisit land of roundheads, pointheads, war and deficits" MinnPost
  13. ^ Brennan, Mary (August 27, 2017) "Fringe Dance review: Lear, Dance Base" The Herald
  14. ^ Stahl, Jennifer (September 9, 2019) "Meet the 2019 Dance Magazine Award Honorees" Dance Magazine

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