What Matters About The Philadelphia Matter by Rhonda Moore

June 2021

They say curiosity killed the cat, but if we give the phrase its fullest possible meaningfulness one must also consider the ancient proverb (of supposed English origin): ”The cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, for the last three he stays.”

For anyone who has ever brushed shoulders with David Gordon, the use of this quote as metaphorical reference to his way of thinking, his notions and practices of artistic navigation and investigation, and his resulting body of work could be perceived as understatement of the most blasphemous kind. For starters, let’s take 3 + 3 + 3 = 9 and make it 3 x 3 x 10 = 90, the age Gordon–inshallah!–will embrace in just five years. His 2020 work The Philadelphia Matter bears testimony to the playing, the straying, and the staying he’s been busy with for 45 of them.

Philosophically consonant with the West African word and concept known as “Sankofa” (roughly translated as “reaching back to reconnect and recover what has been lost or forgotten), Gordon pulls movements, intentions, and meanings out of their past contexts, wondering all the while about the exponential possibilities of new life, new considerations, and new and heretofore undiscovered points of view that a different time and place can incite. Snippets of David’s ideas, motivations, movements, and machinations from past constructions are “offered up” to dancers, movers, and thinkers. These practitioners hail forth from backgrounds of every sort; it’s a motley crew with lived experience light years distant in time, place, and circumstance from Gordon.But he’s been doing this kind of work from the very start: challenging the presumed, accepted, and ascribed “norms,” while putting himself on the line and in question, always. This is his “shtick,” and you either get it, or not.

Today, many of the dancers who eventually work with David Gordon “know” him from a book they’ve flipped through, pictures they’ve seen or a video watched in a dance history class; this is just one of the few disadvantages of youth and, by the way, no one gets to pick when they come into this world. The Philadelphia Matter is Gordon’s latest foray into reaching back and stretching forward, with no caveats or apologies allowed. It’s exactly that kind of boldness that drew young Philadelphia movement artists to the 2020 project and me to David almost 40 years ago.

As a young dancer in my mid-20s, David’s way of thinking, especially around ways of perceiving movement of the most ordinary kind, was intriguing. The opportunity to get closer arrived when I auditioned and became one of the movers invited to play, speak, and dance with David Gordon in the early 80s. The piece, Trying Times (Dance Theater Workshop – New York, 1982) was one of my earliest dabblings in New York’s “downtown dance” world (for more on that, we’ll need to sit over drinks). Suffice it to say that I got especially hooked on the unexpectedness and unpredictability of it all–the work, the places, and the people. I’ve always shivered at stereotypes, and at the time and in that place–New York in the 80s–uptown and downtown dance could be paralleled to a city divided by train tracks,. If you don’t get the reference, you might need a wake-up call, bigtime, and I say this with love.

Fast forward to 2014: By sheer serendipity I notice a call for volunteers wanting and willing to work with David Gordon (and this generally means working with the incredibly elegant, able, and apt Valda Setterfield, his wife and a whole ‘nother wonderful story). Answering the email call, I mention my prior, 32-year-ago interaction with David Gordon and his Pick Up Company, and am offered the consideration of being a paid performer in Gordon’s Political Shenanigans.

Joining the main cast of this new “revisited” work, I am reunited with David and Valda for the first time in a long while–me with all my baggage culled from 25 years of life abroad, newly returned to the US, with partner and 3 offspring. David was proposing, rethinking, and newly configuring repertory of his past, this time based on the writings of Bertold Brecht. This was a month-long experience that reunited me with the feisty, ever-questioning, ever challenging Gordon, and connected me with some of Philadelphia’s most prolific front-runner artists for the first time. He hadn’t changed at all; all he’s always done is ask people to try, to be open to something they may not be used to, to consider things they’ve never done before–no judgement allowed in the room–well, there is his to contend with, but this is clearly a personal battle. To put it simply, he knows what he wants when he sees it; he seems to feel his way through. It’s a strange combination of fascination, frustration, and fright, that somehow makes you feel special just being in the room.

Forward again to 2020: When The Philadelphia Matter presented yet another possibility to work with David, I initially jumped at the opportunity, but was later self-doubting, both about the relevance of my presence and the physical commitment. It was six years after Political Shenanigans and 36 years forward from that first very physical and mental encounter with David Gordon. I just wasn’t sure that I could completely get on board with getting a chair, learning essential movement from watching online videos, and attempting to be as true-to-the-original while executing the studied steps, all within a proscribed timeline. It all appeared overwhelming to me, plus Covid-19 had reared its gnarly head, making logistics even trickier. And then there was my inside voice that I both love and hate, saying,  “…you are now a 64-year-old; dancer, yes, but with a lot of fine print even you don’t care to read…”

So The Philadelphia Matter held a lot of personal “ifs” for me;  I will spare all the gory details around knees, memory, and mobility in general. Suffice it to say that I wavered for more than a minute: could I/can I/what if/what if not/am I still relevant/do I still have a valid place in that strange and rarefied world I know and recognize as the art of dance?

So much of growing up is about transformation and shape-shifting, and here I am after it all, still walking, talking, and making sense–at least to myself. Working on The Philadelphia Matter leaves me with a sense of timelessness. It brought me into contact, albeit virtual, with dancers 40+ years my junior; a strange, uncanny flip-flop of my first Gordon encounter. What really matters to me is the gift of renewal, revival, and relief (honestly) at discovering my immediacy, openness, spontaneity and attraction to risk and the unknown all still intact, even fortified by this latest dive-in with David, and I thank him for the consideration.

I am filled with gratefulness at my participation in the past and present, and look forward to being a presence in a room somewhere, sometime in the future. Kudos to David for making it all possible.

Major support for The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020 has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.