Why is the Dance Umbrella festival showing a play? Partly because the central performers in this production of Ionesco’s classic work The Chairs are David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, veterans of the New York avant-garde dance scene. But it’s more than that. Gordon wryly describes chairs as a “career-long preoccupation” – and certainly he and Setterfield were making “chair dances” before they became a cliche of experimental choreography. And it’s also because the play portrays the home life of an aged couple – a theme Gordon and Setterfield, long-time partners both on stage and off, have explored in previous works.
the stage becomes a theatre auditorium crowded with imagined guests and ghosts
The pair enter the stage, creaky and a little cranky, against a grainy film of the chair dances of their youth. They recycle well-worn domestic rituals of mild antagonism and affection, calling each other “Pussycat” and “Cookie” – the talk less important than its repetition. Then their routine takes a different turn as they receive imaginary guests, each given a chair. Gordon grows wistful at the arrival of a past lover; Setterfield flirts gleefully with the husband, shamelessly showing her moth-eaten stockings. Gradually, the visitors grow so numerous that they need rows of chairs, and the stage becomes a theatre auditorium crowded with imagined guests and ghosts.
Throughout the play, two figures have been flitting about the wings, slipping sheets of paper to Gordon like pages from the script, or subconscious autocues. Finally, they take centre stage as the “spokespeople” for whom Gordon has been waiting – angels of death come to witness the couple’s final departure, through separate doors, from their world of habit, fantasy and recollections.
Characteristically, Gordon and Setterfield understate the emotional drama of the moment. But in this chair dance of their old age it is just such overlappings of the text with their own long lives together in the theatre that cut quietest and deepest.